Testing the Teachers Part 2: The Stick

So, a million dollars later, our heroine has discovered that paying bonuses to teachers whose kids do well on tests doesn’t actually make kids do well on tests.  Now, let us rant in the opposite direction: the stick end of things.

In August, three staff members (two Jasons and a Doug, since we’re gonna be naming names here) from the Los Angeles Times released an analysis of “teacher efficiency” based on student test scores.  Crunching several years of CST results, they created a database with every 3rd through 5th grade teacher’s first and last name, and a ranking of each on a 5-point continuum of “least” to “most” effective in language arts and math.  You know how crucial it is in a news story to make a human connection?  How, if you’re writing about accidental poisonings of household pets, it’s important to interview at least one family where Fido really kicked it?  Well, the LA Times did itself proud: a mere three paragraphs in, it specifically told its readers where to look, by name, for a specific “bad” teacher at a specific local school.

This, the writers argued, was a necessary public service.  “Research has repeatedly found that teachers are the single most important school-related factor in a child’s education, yet until now, parents have had no objective information about their effectiveness.”

Let me, at the risk of incurring the Wrath of the Testing Board, give you a little sense of how objectively effective Teacher Beth was last year.  I gave standardized tests to 5 students: granted these are the alternate assessments for students with significant disabilities, but one hopes that an equal amount of care and relevance are at play here.  Two of my students were 4th grade kids with moderate to severe mental retardation.  In the Language Arts portion of the test, they were asked to pick up the red book instead of the green book; in the math portion, they had to find the median and mode of several data sets.  My student who enjoys throwing things managed to at least “approach benchmark” for science because picking the manipulatives up before tossing them constitutes an “attempted response” and he randomly chose several other correct answers.  A good deal of my data was shot to hell because a parent erroneously assumed that we’d be using those “standardized test things” to place her child in a Special Day Class next year and thus exempted him from the whole thing altogether.  And I honestly don’t think the system allows children taking the most heavily modified test (for those with profound cognitive and motor limitations) to score as anything lower than Proficient.

The writers of this piece admit that the idea of evaluating teacher effectiveness through test scores along is “controversial”.  The value-added data wranglers are even more circumspect, stating “Even advocates of the method say it should count for half or less of a teacher’s overall evaluation.”  Nevertheless, the piece goes on to chase down another “least effective” teacher, discounting her 25 years of experience, National Board Certified status, the principal’s glowing assessment of her, feedback from parents on her thorough attention to both social and academic growth, and their own observations of her commitment to her practice.  The kids lost 5 points in English between second grade (when she didn’t teach them, and the test protocol calls for the teacher to read all items aloud to all students) and third (when she did teach them, and it…doesn’t.)  Plus, when the reporters visited classrooms for ten minutes during vocabulary time, they noted that she “asked her third-graders to find the sentence where the word “route” appeared in a story”, instead of challenging the children to define the word themselves.  Case closed.

Woe, then, to the ineffective teachers of 3rd through 5th grade students.  But, you say, what about the rest of us?  Why are teachers of older and younger students spared from this cunning analysis?

Fear not.  Alas, the teachers of younger grades are, at this point, exempt from public humiliation because their charges aren’t yet old enough for two years of test scores (something that the service-minded Times is no doubt hell-bent on fixing: I visualize Two Jasons and a Doug peeking through the windows during kindergarten art time, scribbling copious comparative notes).   However, they did say in August that this was only the beginning: “In coming months, The Times plans to publish similar rankings for the district’s math and English teachers in higher grades.”

And here’s where it really gets ugly.  I’m guessing that’s not actually gonna happen.  Why?
Because a longtime teacher, raised in the same impoverished area of South Los Angeles where he had near-perfect attendance for 14 years as an education professional, committed suicide after being publicly ranked as a “less effective” teacher.  Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think this was the only contributing factor, but I’m not in a position to argue with Ruelas’ family and friends, who spoke of his work with kids as the most defining part of his life and stated that they noticed a distinct change in his demeanor after the rankings were posted.

The rankings, by the way, are still there.  You can go to the site I linked to above, click on the name of the first “most ineffective” teacher it mentions, get all the dirt on him (hey!  His picture’s there too!), and then retype the name of Rigoberto Ruelas, Miramonte Elementary, 2003-2009.   The Times helpfully informs you that it gave elementary school teachers an opportunity to preview their evaluations and publicly respond.  And, gallingly, on this same page, it informs Ruelas that “Teachers who have not commented may do so by contacting The Times. “

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