Real School: Why Value Added Teacher Scores Should Be Made Public

by Donna Schoenkopf

Lots of us teachers (including some of us now retired!) have become quite cynical about new rules, new methods, new things that are instituted just because some new administrator wants to put his mark on the district. But sometimes a new idea comes along that produces healthy change.

I think publishing Value Added scores of teachers is one of those. I am in the minority, at least among teachers, the district, and my beloved union, and I understand their legitimate concerns.

The Los Angeles Times ran a piece recently about why LAUSD won’t release the Value Added scores of teachers in Los Angeles Unified School District to the public. (“Value Added” refers to rating the effectiveness of teachers by averaging out the standardized test scores of their students over several years, with an emphasis on whether or not those scores rose, fell, or stayed the same. Because they’re tracking students’ scores over several years, and judging them only against themselves, there is no question of socioeconomic fairness. In other words, teachers aren’t penalized for having poor students or students with low abilities.)

I am pretty sure I know why there is heated discussion about keeping those Value Added scores private, having been a teacher in LAUSD, now retired. A whole lot of pressure, condemnation, embarrassment, jealousy, suspicion, and general upheaval is involved.

A note: When the LA Times first ran its series on Value Added, I was ranked as one of the top 100 teachers in its findings. Maybe because the rankings came out after I’d already retired, there was no jealousy from my teacher friends—or at least none that I heard about! But I certainly could envision it. Condemnation, embarrassment, jealousy, and suspicion are horrible things and make for craziness and meanness and I can’t think of any good that comes from them. They serve no purpose except to tear down things, including things of worth. It’s like cancer eating away at the body until it is destroyed.

But pressure is fine with me as long as the results are better schools and teaching. Great things can come from pressure. The pressure to succeed fuels a person’s ambitions and dreams. Without pressure dreams stay dreamy and ambitions never become reality.

teacher on a pedestal
art: Paul Takizawa

For years I stood alone at our union’s monthly area meetings and general conventions about the need for our union to pay attention to test scores and not treat them as unimportant, artificial, teacher-destroying things. I warned that our union would be held complicit in the failure of public schools if the public lost trust in us. If we didn’t take test scores seriously, bye-bye public schools. I said that children’s report cards and their standardized test scores were the only ways the general public had of getting an inkling of how things were going at school and that we had better take both of those things seriously.

The reaction and arguments about my position at those meetings were:

A. Education isn’t about mastering a test. Good teaching is so much more than having a student learn a discrete piece of information.

My answer to A:

These days the concept of “higher order thinking” is bandied about by the general public as though it’s an actual skill that is taught. Supposedly a teacher just teaches higher order thinking in, for example, math, and the students then magically know how to do long division.

Man! That just raises my hackles. They’ve got it all backwards!

Higher order thinking is about connecting discrete pieces of information in order to form a more sophisticated or unique way of looking at something or inventing something or changing something. But it starts with basic skills.

Basic skills create brain synapses, which act like scaffolding on which connections can be made and new concepts can be built, like a toddler’s first steps creating muscle memory that leads to walking, running, jumping, skipping, or like the memorization of multiplication facts leading to understanding fractions. You cannot understand fractions if you don’t have multiplication facts on hand. Trust me on this.

An illustration is called for here. I draw it from my own experience in my high school algebra class.

I did not understand algebra. One day, being quite embarrassed because everyone seemed to understand what was going on and I didn’t, I went up to my teacher’s desk for help. She raised her eyes to look at me.

“Go back and figure it out,” she said coldly.

I went back to my desk. I read and reread the examples. I sat there completely at a loss, sweating it out.

Well, I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t have the scaffolding, the basic information that was the key to understanding it. Besides being stuck, I was mortified, which exacerbated my inability to comprehend. I got a D in that class and for years—twenty-eight, to be exact—I could not deal with math. I was frozen in failure.

But finally, when I was forced to take a math class in college in order to graduate, I was lucky enough to get a teacher who gave me the key to understanding math. It was a simple idea. Math was a language! = was a state-of-being verb. Adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing were verbs. Numbers were nouns. Yeah. How about that.

(I eventually became a really good third grade math teacher.)

B. Some things are out of a teacher’s control, like a student being ill or upset because Mom and Dad are getting a divorce on testing day.

My answer to B:

Value Added ratings for teachers are drawn from several consecutive years of scores from a teacher’s classes. It is easily determined whether that teacher tended to raise her students’ scores or not because of the sheer numbers of test scores. The small variations that occur from emotional distress or moving or other such anomalies are just part of the norming of the scores. That seems totally fair to me.

C. There is an emotional side to teaching that can’t be measured.

D. Teachers teach much more than academic things.

My answer to C and D:

Those are very important and honest points. We teachers should feel a sense of injustice about Value Added scores not reflecting a vital part of what we do.

Those things (they are different in every teacher) are difficult to measure but they are essential in developing successful students and schools. Loving school or appreciating art or learning how to deal with hard work or understanding why it’s bad to be a bully are things good teachers impart to their students and are as much a part of a good education as any of the basic skills. In fact, they are basic skills.

So how do we make Value Added scores really fair and reflective of a teacher’s true worth?

How about this:

Why not add subjective evaluations from students, parents, and administrators to Value Added scores? We could include evaluations that speak to important things like teachers who inspire, teachers who empathize, teachers who cause students to love school, teachers who understand their students, teachers who are boring, teachers who are cruel, teachers who are absent a lot, teachers who are comfortable to be with, teachers who are good explainers, or motherly (or fatherly), or funny. Those qualities are subjective and human and as important as test scores. Doing extracurricular projects with kids, creating a classroom that shines with beauty and interesting things are some of the ways to rate a teacher. A rating system or questionnaire can easily be devised. Shoot. I’ve got one in my head right now.

Both test scores and the human qualities of a teacher need to be ranked, side by side, if justice is to be served. If a teacher is “mean” but test scores go up, that means something. If a teacher is “nice” and test scores go down, that means something, too. If a teacher is cruel and students’ test scores suck, ai, yi, yi! something must be done! But if a teacher’s students have raised their test scores and kids, parents, and administrators think the world of him or her, lucky school and students!

The Los Angeles Public School District is owned by The People and that gives them the right to know what’s going on in their schools. The public not only has the right to know but should know what’s happening.

Time to shine the light on teachers. I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised with how amazing they are.

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


Early in hs Algebra the teacher told us to find “X”.  Well, I still don’t know where “X” is and it can stay there as long as I live.

2011-11-28 by Doyal

I don’t think we have a clue about what we want kids to know.  Every so many years the Educrats cook up NEW! IMPROVED! EduTheories then try them out then somehow “test” for whatever we think we want, then Boo-hoo, the scores are crappy, so they change requirements again.  New math! Old Math! Crazy Math! Teach values!  No teach to the test! No, teach Concepts! No, math and science only. Oh, crap, now our kids can’t write and their critical thinking is zilch. Wait, I know, let’s try . . . .  How do you test anything and anybody when you can’t figure out what you want kids to learn in the first place?

2011-11-28 by Ann Calhoun

As a science teacher about the same era as you I knew things were going to be bad when Texas was the state who actually decided what we could and couldn’t teach because they had the largest contract for the new science books. Evolution became almost criminal to mention and Darwin was a name to whisper if the teacher dared to mention it at all. Science and religion were in conflict and religion won. The text books were watered down and so were the other states’s science texts as Texas set the standard. And now we have grownups who don’t understand how Earth science works and how and can’t seem to grasp the notion that maybe Earth can’t possibly adjust to the massive and rapid population growth and the pollution that population will dump on it. They didn’t learn it in Science in a lot of schools because we were supposed to teach the science of an evolving Earth.
One other think…I loved my math teacher, it was the English teachers I wondered about…they were great teachers too but why I got elected chaplain of the class beats me..Boy I hated home room.

2011-11-28 by Jeanita Ives

you guys rock.  you have plenty of scaffolding built up in those brains of yours, thanks to a teacher who taught you the basic skills.

now.  how do we let The Public know how our schools are doing? 

doyal, i like your take on things. 

ann, what should be taught and how?  who should decide? 

jeanita, (you must have had the hill sisters.  chaplain.  wow.  i forgot about those days.) 

the texas textbook thing is one of the huge scandals of public school systems which i’ve written about before.  maybe i need to do that again.  some real graft going on, brothers and sisters, with revolving doors from retiring public school administrators getting jobs at large textbook corporations—just like in congress, with its revolving door.  there oughta be a law.

jeanita and ann, grade school is about basic skills.  with standardized tests it’s not hard to figure out what to teach and easy to test. let the teacher determine his or her own method, but gear it to objective test results.  (reading comprehension, math, being basics.)

high school is about using higher order thinking acquired by knowing basic skills.  how to test that?  projects of some sort?  who’d judge them?  that’s a hard one. 

anyone have any ideas?

2011-11-28 by donna

Yup, the Hill sisters…How could you avoid them…one for junior English and the other for Senior…and I got both. I did learn to enjoy Shakespeare and other such thing with them. They were good teachers. Miss Martin was great for me…was she you problem with math? I was fortunate enough to qualify for a program at UCDavis in CA that was trying to get engineering, math and science graduates to get science or math credentials. It was a super program and so exciting to be a part of that I still regret leaving California a few years later. The key to a good school is a great principal and one who sees talented and innovative teachers as a plus, not a negative.
I could go on…but don’t want to write a whole book I will have to say that when I went back to teaching in Kansas City, Missouri, things had really changed. Teaching to the test was the only consideration, no critical thinking. The administrators were absolutely awful and any teacher who wanted to do something the least bit creative seemed to be a threat to the system. I quit…It was too depressing.

2011-11-28 by Jeanita Ives

Brava, Donna! You hit a home run with one, as far as I’m concerned. You identified the cautions and responded beautifully to each one. Great work.

2011-11-28 by Annemarie

Donna-  I agree with part of what you have to say and do not with the remainder.  From one who taught in RUSD (Riverside Unified School District) for seventeen years, I feel: (1). I got out at the right time (five years ago) and am enjoying retirement (2). Two daughters presently teach in RUSD (combined 24 years experience) and wish daily they could get out along with the majority of their compadres.  (3). I would never, ever recommend anyone pursue a carreer in public education.  I speak only for California and RUSD in particular.  I also am not enamored with CTA nor NEA…..I would give you more a “double” than a “home run”.  With that said I still enjoy your “thinking”.
Little Eddie

2011-11-28 by SoCalEd

You ask me, what should be done?  Well, how’s this for a start.  The Feds pay for each state to send 10 of their top teachers of the year to a Convention wherein they would hammer out k-12 “Scaffolding” of exactly what each kid should have mastered in that grade AND how to best test to find out they actually mastered it (not just memorized some answers to fill in a ScanTron sheet).  Then they would create some outlines of the best methods for teaching said structure. Their product (from the Best Techers of the Year from each state) would hopefully be coherent, sound, workable—i.e. best practices.  Then make that the template for all the states.

Then, dump Texas as the nation’s school book buyer.  Pllluueeze. 

Then, while that is going on, Congress (and the American people) must get serious about the connection between poverty and crappy grades.

And then the voters in all states have to get serious about who they elect to School Boards.  Running a school district is like running a multi-million dollar a year business yet so many school board members, while well meaning, can’t balance a checkbook or know much of anything about teaching.  Thus they turn over all decisions to the Superintendent (after all, they say, he’s the expert we hired to make those decisions) and then sit back and “play at” SchoolBoard.  And since the Superintendent/Administration is now in complete control (or cunning enough to co-opt the Board majority), guess where their focus is?  Right.  Administration.  And guess who will get short shrift?  Right.  Teachers and kids and the classroom. Game over.

And then shoot all politicians who demonize teachers in order to use them as political punching bags to get elected. Just shoot ‘em.

That’s a start IMHO.

2011-12-1 by Ann Calhoun

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