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Singled-out L.A. Unified teacher shares skills with colleagues

Miguel Aguilar was cited as among L.A. Unified's most effective in an L.A. Times article on the 'value-added' evaluation method. Since then, many at his Pacoima school have adopted his methods. But budget cuts threaten his job.

April 03, 2011|By Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times
  • Miguel Aguilar forces his fifth-graders to slow down and think before answering questions. Many instructors at Broadus Elementary School in Pacoima have adopted his style. Now Aguilar may be laid off.
Miguel Aguilar forces his fifth-graders to slow down and think before answering… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

In February, fifth-grade teacher Miguel Aguilar stood in the front of a class, nervous and sweating.

The subject — reading and comprehension — was nothing new. But on this day, his students weren't 11-year-olds in sneakers and sweatshirts: They were 30 of his fellow teachers.

It was the first time anyone at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima could remember a teacher there being singled out for his skill and called upon to share his secrets school-wide.

"A teacher coming forward … that hadn't happened before," said Janelle Sawelenko, another fifth-grade teacher.

Months before, Aguilar had been featured in a Times article as one of the most effective teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District at raising student scores on standardized tests. Many of his students, the article noted, had vaulted from the bottom 30% in the district to well above average.

More scores coming soon: The Times is preparing to release to the public a new round of value-added scores for Los Angeles elementary school teachers. Beginning Wednesday, all teachers who have a ranking in the updated database -- about 11,500 third- through fifth-grade teachers in all -- are invited to request a preview and comment on their scores at To ensure that comments are included when the scores are published, please respond by April 14.

The article contrasted Aguilar's performance with that of the teacher next door, John Smith, who ranked among the district's least effective teachers. Pupils in both classes faced similar challenges in the poor, predominantly Latino community.

When the article appeared — followed soon after by a database ranking about 6,000 Los Angeles elementary school teachers — it ignited debate nationwide. Educators, teachers unions and experts warned that publicly rating teachers would pit one against the other.

Seven months later, Broadous teachers and the principal say the opposite has occurred. They've noticed a new openness to talking about what works, an urgent desire to improve. "It's encouraged them to collaborate," said Eidy Hemmati, the school's intervention coordinator.

Indeed, Broadous teachers — including Smith — have repeatedly sought out Aguilar's help this school year, despite the potential for hard feelings.

The new experiment, however, may be short-lived.

After a particularly long day of teaching several weeks ago, Aguilar found a pink slip in his mailbox. He was one of about 5,000 district teachers notified that they might lose their jobs this summer, depending on the troubled budget.

Smith didn't get a pink slip. In California and most other states, seniority, not performance, is the sole consideration when layoffs come.

Smith has been with the district 15 years, Aguilar eight.

'A lot of jealousy'

In the initial weeks after the article came out, Aguilar said he "went through hell."

"There's a lot of jealousy and hate out there.... People said things like, 'There's this guy who thinks he's all good just because he's Latino and he's friends with the kids. How do you know he's not cheating?'"

Many educators, including many at Broadous, were skeptical of The Times' statistical approach, known as "value-added analysis." In essence, it estimates a teacher's effectiveness by measuring each student's performance on standardized tests compared to previous years. Because it measures students against their own track records, it largely controls for socioeconomic differences.

Districts across the country are adopting the approach, but opposition to value-added remains strong among many teachers and their unions, and some experts consider it too unreliable for high-stakes decisions. Proponents acknowledge that it is imperfect, but say that it is the most reliable tool available and that it should be used along with other measures.

Like most districts, L.A. Unified historically hasn't distinguished between its stars and its stragglers, often rating the vast majority of teachers "satisfactory." And the culture of the teachers union values solidarity — during a protest against The Times last year, one of the union's speakers shouted, "We are all John Smiths."

By singling out Aguilar, the Times article had put him under an uneasy spotlight.

"Little by little I felt like I had to prove I was respected not just because of my test scores," he said, "but because of what I'm teaching in my classroom."

On visits to his classroom, Principal Stannis Steinbeck quickly concluded that Aguilar was not simply "teaching to the test" — a concern among critics of the value-added approach. He had an uncanny ability to connect with his students while commanding their respect.

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