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For L.A., possible lessons in D.C.'s controversial teacher evaluation system

In school districts including Washington's, New York's and Houston's, officials are using a method called 'value-added' to bring a measure of objectivity to the process. But virtually no one endorses it as the sole gauge of an instructor.

November 14, 2010|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Roxanne Brummell has thrived in what many consider the toughest new testing ground for teachers in the nation.

The fifth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C., earned a "highly effective" rating under the district's controversial system that rewards — and sometimes fires — teachers based in part on their students' progress on standardized tests. In just seven months, she helped boost her students' reading scores by an average of 24%.

Brummell's reward: a $20,000 bonus and recognition at district award ceremonies.

Brummell, a Guyana native, likes the acknowledgment and the data-driven feedback. But she frets that the district is relying too heavily on standardized tests and isn't doing enough to help teachers who are struggling.

As for the bonus, she almost didn't accept it. One condition was that she give up various rights if laid off in a budget crunch.

"I love it, but it has its flaws," she said of the district's evaluation system, as she recovered from a busy day of explaining improper fractions.

Her complex feelings reflect the nationwide ambivalence toward the growing movement to hold teachers more accountable for what their students actually learn. Until now, evaluations typically have involved a school administrator making a quick, pre-announced visit to a teacher's classroom. But in major districts including Washington's, New York's and Houston's — and perhaps soon, Los Angeles' — officials are using a method called "value-added" to bring a measure of objectivity to the process.

Value-added assesses a teacher's effectiveness at raising students' performance on standardized tests compared with how they did in previous years. Virtually no one endorses the method as the sole measure of an instructor.

For states to qualify for certain federal grants, the Obama administration is requiring that they link teacher evaluations to student performance. At least 27 states have passed or are considering legislation to meet that requirement.

"There is an absolute laser focus on teacher evaluation in this country now — I've never seen anything like it," said Rob Weil of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 2,200 school districts.

But the trend has stirred opposition. Some educational experts and union leaders say that value-added is not reliable enough for high-stakes decisions on firing, tenure or pay; that it is a narrow gauge of teaching; and that it pressures instructors to "teach to the test."

Supporters say it is one important tool to be used in combination with others, perhaps including end-of-course tests or reviews of student work. How much weight to give it, what stakes to attach, how many years of data to consider and even how to calculate the scores are not settled questions, leaving much room for discussion and debate.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is studying many of these questions, senior program officer Steve Cantrell said concerns that the method may inaccurately assess some teachers must be balanced against the likelihood that it will improve the chances for children to have an effective instructor. "If you shift the perspective from what is best for adults to what is best for students, then it's super clear that value-added can improve the system over time," he said.

In Los Angeles, the teachers union has adamantly opposed using value-added in teacher evaluations — but a school district panel named by the superintendent has recommended that it go forward. The debate erupted in August, when The Times published a database of the value-added scores of about 6,000 elementary school teachers based on seven years of testing data, prompting union protests and vows by the district to raise the issue during contract negotiations. It was the first time in the nation such information had been made public.

In New York, the city school district's recent announcement that it would release value-added scores to the media drew an immediate court challenge from the teachers union. Underscoring warring perspectives within the district, a Brooklyn public school on Friday sent a notice to parents urging them to protest the release, saying: "OUR STUDENTS AND TEACHERS ARE NOT TEST SCORES!!"

Perhaps nowhere has the approach drawn more attention — and outrage — than in Washington, which has probably taken value-added further than any other district in the country.

Former Chancellor Michelle Rhee said she came to the nation's capital three years ago knowing her changes would wreak political havoc. But she said she was willing to take on a system that was giving passing evaluations to 95% of teachers even as only 8% of students were performing at grade level in mathematics.

"How can you have a system where you're that misaligned?" Rhee asked in a recent interview. "For me, it's always about putting this in the lens of children and families ... as opposed to making this a fight between groups of adults."

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