The Los Angeles Times is being variously praised and slammed for becoming the first newspaper ever to publish the names of highly ineffective — as well as effective — teachers based on years of their student test scores. The stories, "Grading the Teachers," published in recent weeks, looked at 6,000 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers' results going back to 2003.
Times reporters Jason Song, Jason Felch and Doug Smith and the paper's lawyers had repeatedly pressed the reluctant LAUSD, using the California Public Records Act, to obtain what turns out to be public information.
Song and Felch tell L.A. Weekly that after they requested the classroom scores last October, LAUSD officials, instead of complying with the law, improperly asked the United Teachers Los Angeles union what they should do. "Before even responding to us, they consulted the union," Felch says. "They're not supposed to make determinations based on how a union feels about it, but strictly upon the law."
UTLA President A.J. Duffy, an antireformist who angrily opposes such basic ideas as charter schools, hotly opposed releasing the classroom-by-classroom scores. Duffy has vilified Song, Felch and Smith and demanded that Angelenos boycott the Times for besmirching people's reputations. The reaction has been mostly guffaws.
As Song notes, "Something like 98 percent of L.A. Unified teachers get a satisfactory job review." The Times showed that the bottom quintile of teachers — 20 percent of those studied — drag their students down academically, even previously solid achievers. The same teachers do this year in and year out.
Last December, after the Times exerted more pressure on LAUSD, district officials released the teacher names and classroom scores, with student names scrubbed to comply with privacy laws, on the advice of LAUSD lawyers.
Now, thanks to the Times, there is talk that the school board might adopt a reform in the next few months to have classroom test scores included in teacher evaluations. The concept, known as "value-added analysis," is already in use in other states.
That kind of glowing talk seems to be a long shot at LAUSD. Under school board President Mónica García and short-lived superintendents David Brewer and Ramon Cortines, the district has been backpedaling on data-based reforms instituted by former Superintendent Roy Romer, and by former board President Caprice Young, who led a reform-minded school board in the early 2000s.
Unlike under Young and Romer, the LAUSD board under García and Cortines pays far less attention to detailed test-score data showing which schools' math and reading curriculums are not working, nor does it closely track which schools are failing under the statewide Similar Schools Ranking.
In July, in fact, school officials admitted to L.A. Weekly that the district's once-robust data-research staff has been virtually wiped out. LAUSD is spending millions of dollars conducting state tests, then ignoring the results that the board, superintendent and principals were supposed to be using as tools for improving bad curriculum, faltering teachers and failing schools.
(In July, the Weekly informed LAUSD that Ninth Street School on Skid Row had fallen from the top to the bottom of the statewide Similar Schools Ranking. District leaders were unaware of Ninth Street's precipitous decline, saying they no longer follow the carefully constructed Similar Schools Ranking that controls for poverty and ethnicity, and which was designed to alert school districts that they, themselves, are doing something wrong at school sites.)
If history is any guide, the UTLA, the García-led school board and their allies in Sacramento will resist any reform that uses classroom test scores as a serious portion of a teacher's evaluation.
The Times was not the first to try to obtain long-secret classroom test scores and get that information to people who need it. Two major efforts, one in 1998 and the other about five years later, were stopped by teacher unions.
In the early 2000s, education experts and politicians in Sacramento were on the verge of sending to California teachers the same basic data the Times published. The idea was to let teachers know which of them consistently caused their students to fall behind on test scores, which of them helped their students surge ahead on scores, and which teachers had no measurable effect on their students.
Compiled by the California Department of Education from its STAR test, the data closely track the classroom results of each teacher based on years of scores collected from every school district — results the state still quietly collects today.
In 2003, the California Board of Education saw the data as a tantalizing reform tool that teachers could use to change — from within.
Board member Suzanne Tacheny wanted to get the information out to teachers. Executive Director Rae Belisle and former Executive Director Bill Lucia knew that thousands of ineffective tenured teachers simply could not teach, although they held teaching certificates and sometimes even master's degrees.
What if these teachers were privately shown this in a report and given an impetus, and some help, to change?
But the plan to inform teachers of how they were doing was strenuously fought by unions like United Teachers Los Angeles, which claimed that school principals intercepted some of the test-score reports from teacher mailboxes in order to punish and ridicule teachers.
Many nervous California school boards, whose elected members take most of their campaign funds from teacher unions, got cold feet and opted out of the plan.
"They were afraid of their unions, so they sent in their little opt-outs," recalls the plainspoken Belisle, now an education consultant. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Belisle to the state education board last year, but she stepped down recently after being opposed by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and numerous education unions — for speaking out too much.
"The districts kept their own teachers in the dark about their own classroom results, like little children," Belisle says. "They actually said, 'No, our teachers do not want to know if they are ineffective.' "
That was seven long years ago. "This information legally could have been published by LAUSD long ago," notes Tacheny, now with the Policy Innovations in Education Network. "Educators have been trained to believe all data is too flawed to make conclusions. That is not true when it is a single classroom and a single teacher looked at over time."
And that was not the first time education reformers tried — hard — to get classroom test-score data that the Times has published and use it for good.
In the late 1990s, when Lucia was executive director of the state Board of Education, he pushed the board to order the publishing of classroom test scores along with the rest of the statewide standardized test scores on the California Department of Education Web site.
"The unions came into the hearing room — the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, and I am sure UTLA played a key role, and they literally wagged their fingers and said teachers were being hijacked," Lucia recalls.
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"I lost by one vote," says Lucia, now executive director of EdVoice, a philanthropic organization that pushes for the use of improved classroom test scores and other improved data to eliminate inequities in schools. "One vote more, and California parents could have seen what was happening in their own kids' classrooms all these years — and done something about it."
But parents were kept in the dark. And the Times series found that some unfortunate children, through luck of the draw, are continually assigned to bad teachers.
"You almost have to say that Los Angeles parents have a class-action suit against LAUSD, for knowingly allowing children to again and again be placed, for years, in front of teachers who cause an entire classroom to fall behind," Lucia says.
Meanwhile, the Song/Felch/Smith series rocketed to the top of Google education stories, getting more than 240,000 page views by early September, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has praised the Times for its guts.