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Teacher database debacle

August 12, 2011

California can hardly afford to give up $6 million. Yet that's what the federal government is rightly demanding. The U.S. Department of Education wants its money back because the state failed to use the funds to build a database on public school teachers, as it had promised.

To be more specific, Gov. Jerry Brown led the state to this point by vetoing the expenditure of $2.1 million in federal grant money for the database. He said school districts could build databases on their own employees; meanwhile, the state asked for permission to use the money on other data-gathering projects, and federal officials wisely refused.

The state is already putting together a database on students; the proposed teacher database would do the same for the people who instruct them. Included in the teachers' records would be their education levels, their work history in schools, and the subjects and grades they teach, as well as their students' standardized test scores and other measures of student progress. It was that last portion that made the database controversial, because it would allow the state to link teacher and administrator records with student records and see which teachers appear to be the most effective at raising students' test scores. Most teachers unions have been railing against including so-called value-added data, which measures how much individual students improve year to year, in teachers' performance evaluations. The Obama administration has made the inclusion of standardized test scores a hallmark of its school reform efforts, and provided additional funding so that states could build the necessary computer systems.

We believe test scores should have a place, but not a dominant one, in teacher reviews because students' test performance is one part of the job. But whatever one's view of value-added evaluation, killing a statewide data system is counterproductive. It could have provided a wealth of useful information: whether, for example, teachers who received their certification from a traditional training program are more effective than those who arrived at teaching via other routes, or whether the students of more experienced teachers are less likely to drop out. And what tips might the most successful teachers in the state have to offer, if only we knew who they were?

The only people who have something to fear from new information are those who stand most to benefit from the status quo. The state, which has lagged behind most others in gathering education data, squandered a chance to inform teachers, parents and itself. It doesn't deserve the $6 million.

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