LA Times to Release Teacher Effectiveness Ratings

Sat 21 August 2010 | -- (permalink)

Megan McArdle and Alex Tabarrok tipped me off to a new project by the LA Times to rate and compare every teacher in the LA Unified School district for which they could get standardized test data.

I'm a little unsettled about the idea of publicly releasing all those teacher names and scores. On the other hand they are working for the people, after all. Specifically the parents and students, who could never get this data before.

The teacher's union, naturally, is up in arms, and is calling for a boycott of the LA Times. Individual teachers seem to have a very different response. The LA Times talked to two teachers whose students' percentile performance declined over the course of a school year. The first was John Smith, actually among the worst teachers in the study:

Told of The Times' findings, Smith expressed mild surprise.

"Obviously what I need to do is to look at what I'm doing and take some steps to make sure something changes," he said.

The other was Karen Caruso, a teacher with a very strong reputation. But the data showed that her students actually got farther behind while in her class.

Caruso said she was surprised and disappointed by her results, adding that her students did well on periodic assessments and that parents seemed well-satisfied.

"Ms. Caruso was an amazing teacher," said Rita Gasparetti, whose daughter was in Caruso's class a few years ago. "She really worked with Clara, socially and academically."

Still, Caruso said the numbers were important and, like several other teachers interviewed, wondered why she hadn't been shown such data before by anyone in the district.

"For better or worse," she said, "testing and teacher effectiveness are going to be linked.… If my student test scores show I'm an ineffective teacher, I'd like to know what contributes to it. What do I need to do to bring my average up?"

I've read a few blog posts written by teachers commenting on the LA Times story. They generally seemed defensive, attacking the study methods or the use of standardized testing in general. But what the quotes above show me is that most teachers, even the below-average ones, want to do a good job. Confronted with data showing that they're not, they want to know what they can do to improve. The teacher's union on the other hand, and the teacher bloggers I read, seem more inclined to circle the wagons and fight the use of quantitative performance measures. (LAUSD has had the data for years, but it was never analyzed to measure teacher performance until now, by the LA Times.)

So if the actual teachers want to improve, and data can help them do that, why is the union fighting it? I believe that most teachers want to do a good job, and would want to know if they're not. The union is doing more to represent the worst of its members than the best.

One last thought on unions, taught to me by one of the better adjunct professors I've ever had: It's a mistake to lump all "unions" together and either praise or condemn them as one. You really need to distinguish between private sector unions (Teamsters, service employees, etc), from public employee unions (like the teacher's union or the notorious California prison guards union). In a negotiation between a for-profit company and its union, both sides are constrained by the knowledge that excessively generous benefits or excessively restrictive work rules could drive the company into unprofitability and out of business. And neither side wants that. In a public employee union negotiation that constraint is either diminished or absent. The government is not going to go out of business. So unions and politicians make deals that would never fly in the business world, like the ones that make it incredibly costly and time-consuming to fire a bad teacher.