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.
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.