The LA Times Invents the Teacher Box Score

If you follow education news at all, you know that the Los Angeles Times recently published a series of articles and an online database rating by name 6,000 individual teachers according to their students’ test scores, using “value-added” methodology. Predictably, this has led to a lot of caterwauling from the teachers’ union, which is calling for a boycott of the newspaper and is planning a September 14 protest in front of the Times building.

Everyone has weighed in, from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on down, but I have a few things to add:

1) It’s not something I would have done, because the wholesale naming of teachers doesn’t, um, add much value to the story. The numbers should be used to identify schools and teachers who deserve further review, and then find out if the statistics accurately reflect what’s going on. Afterwards, the naming of teachers who are doing exceptionally well, or exceptionally poorly, is justified and necessary.

2) That having been said, the Times analysis was generated from public records about public employees. The letter signed by the presidents of the National Education Association, California Teachers Association, and United Teachers Los Angeles calling on the Times to ”cease the publication of data” is a blunt attempt to censor information with which the teachers’ unions disagree. I wish I could say this is an unusual position for them to take, but it isn’t, even when they don’t have a case.

3) I wonder how different the reaction to the database would have been if everyone were confident that the results would be positive and laudatory? I’m struck by the union presidents’ statement that “The LA Times proposal to expand its public shaming to the 6,000 teachers in its ‘database’ will exponentially compound the damage.” All 6,000 teachers will be publicly shamed by the value-added data? I also had a laugh at this:

Reasonable people understand a single test score does not define student learning and can never solely measure the effectiveness of a teacher. We would think a reasonable and respectable institution such as the LA Times would as well. So, we are only left to assume, the purpose of the publication was to sell newspapers.

The purpose of the LA Times is to sell newspapers, and the purpose of the teachers’ unions is to defend teachers’ interests. Holy cow! We’ve made an intellectual breakthrough!

But by the unions’ logic, reasonable people won’t take the data seriously, so how does that sell newspapers? And if only unreasonable people will accept the information at face value, why bother to try to censor it or argue about it? They’re unreasonable!

4) Finally, the Times story should give a short pause to those who like to repeat the old lament about how Americans fail to treat their beloved teachers the same way they treat professional athletes and celebrities. I once commented:

When we have a system for teachers that differentiates the Iversons from the guys playing pickup hoops in the schoolyard, or the Brad Pitts from the actor/waiters in Hollywood bistros, we’ll see some teachers making stratospheric salaries. Will they ever make $16 million a year? Only when people will pay just to watch them at work, and follow their statistics in the morning newspaper.

Now that people can follow teachers’ statistics in the morning newspaper, it’s time for a change in tactics. Instead of sending angry letters to the Times, maybe the union presidents should set up bleachers in Zenaida Tan’s classroom, and charge admission.