Photo by Louis Freedberg
Regardless of where you stand on the controversy triggered by the Los Angeles Times series rating the effectiveness of 6,000 teachers based on their students' test scores – and publishing their names – what is undeniable is that it had more of an impact than few education stories ever had.
The first public discussion of the complexities surrounding the issue since the Times' report appeared will be held at UC Berkeley today, at what should be a fascinating symposium titled "Grading the Teachers, Measures, Media and Policies."
Among those in attendance will be Jason Felch, one of the principal authors of the Times series; David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education; state Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, a former public school teacher and administrator; and Mark Wilson, a UC Berkeley education professor who sat on the National Academy of Sciences committee that produced a report for the Obama administration on value-added testing.
I will be moderating the afternoon symposium, which is open to the public. It will also be streamed live on video. (Details available on the UC Berkeley website.)
At least three issues are up for debate: the validity of the "value-added" methodology used by Rand Corp. researcher Richard Buddin that the Times used to run the analysis; whether teacher rankings such as those in the series should be made public; and whether the rankings should be used in teacher evaluations for promotion and compensation purposes.
Since the Times report appeared, districts across the country, as well as teachers unions, are being forced to confront the issue head-on. Virtually every major district is being bombarded with questions from reporters as to whether they plan to adopt "value-added" methods for evaluating teachers.
A major reason the Times' report had such an impact is that it speaks to the issue of how to define and measure "teacher effectiveness," a central focus of national education reform efforts. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pouring $325 million into the effort. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan insisted that states applying for the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund include plans for tying teacher evaluations to student "growth" and test scores.
But just how test scores and teacher evaluation should be linked has not been resolved. Various approaches are being discussed in academic journals, symposia, and more specialized news outlets like Education Week. The University of Wisconsin even has a Value Added Research Center which is examining the methodology typically being used to measure how a student progresses under a particular teacher.
But the Los Angeles Times exploded the entire issue by contracting with Buddin to do an analysis for them, and, for the first time, making the results public as "an important service, and in the belief that parents and the public have a right to the information.”
For the past three years, New York City introduced an approach that is strikingly similar [PDF] to the L.A. Times' ratings called Teacher Data Reports for third- through eighth-grade teachers. But it has taken a different approach: Teachers' rankings are not made public or even shared with other teachers without permission. The entire exercise has been developed over several years, including collaborating with Wisconsin's Value-Added Research Center. And its web presentation goes out of its way to be nonthreatening, even soothing, to teachers, complete with using classical music to introduce a presentation by Amy McIntosh, New York City's schools Chief Talent Officer.
What also helped extend the reach of the L.A. Times series is that this is a complex, and emotional, issue. There are at least two sides to the argument, and people argue vociferously for both of them, often making legitimate points. Some of those arguments – and passions – will no doubt be heard at the Berkeley symposium this afternoon.