Grading LA’s teachers

Year after year, some Los Angeles elementary teachers improve their students’ performance. Some don’t. The Los Angeles Times analyzed seven years of the district’s data to gauge the effectiveness of 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers.

At Broadous Elementary School in a low-income Latino neighborhood, Miguel Aguilar and John Smith teach fifth graders.

On average, (Aguilar’s) students started the year in the 34th percentile in math compared with all other district fifth-graders. They finished in the 61st. Those gains, along with strong results in English, made him one of the most effective elementary school teachers in the district.

On this day, Aguilar had invited a student to the board to divide two fractions — a topic on the upcoming state exam. As his classmates compared notes in whispers, the boy wrote out his answer. Aguilar turned to the class.

“Do you agree?” he asked, without hinting at the correct response.

“Yes!” they called back in unison.

“Good,” he said softly, allowing a faint smile. “You know this.”

John Smith’s students in Room 25 were studying fractions too.

Speaking in a slow cadence, he led his class in reciting a problem aloud twice. He then called on a student slouched in the back. The boy got the answer wrong.

“Not so much,” Smith said dryly, moving on to another pupil without explanation.

. . . On average, Smith’s students slide under his instruction, losing 14 percentile points in math during the school year relative to their peers districtwide, The Times found. Overall, he ranked among the least effective of the district’s elementary school teachers.

Times’ reporters looked at students’ prior performance to analyze the “value” added by a particular teacher.

For example, if a third-grade student ranked in the 60th percentile among all district third-graders, he would be expected to rank similarly in fourth grade. If he fell to the 40th percentile, it would suggest that his teacher had not been very effective, at least for him. If he sprang into the 80th percentile, his teacher would appear to have been highly effective.

Any single student’s performance in a given year could be due to other factors — a child’s attention could suffer during a divorce, for example. But when the performance of dozens of a teacher’s students is averaged — often over several years — the value-added score becomes more reliable, statisticians say.

Education, training and experience do not correlate with effectiveness, the LA Times’ analysis found. The most effective teachers have different personalities and styles, though all tend to “be strict, maintain high standards and encourage critical thinking.”

Karen Caruso, certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, teaches future teachers at UCLA and leads well-regarded Third Street Elementary’s teacher reading circle. The principal considers her one of the school’s best teachers, but the Times’ analysis puts the third-grade teacher in the bottom 10 percent in raising students’ scores.

On average, her students started the year at a high level — above the 80th percentile — but by the end had sunk 11 percentile points in math and 5 points in English.

Caruso said she was surprised and disappointed by her results, adding that her students did well on periodic assessments and that parents seemed well-satisfied.

“Caruso set clear expectations for her students but seemed reluctant to challenge them,” writes a Times reporter who sat in on her class.

Down the hall, fourth-grade teacher Nancy Polacheck, who’s been teaching for 38 years,  ranks in the top 5 percent of elementary school teachers.

Polacheck said her colleagues at Third Street think her expectations are too high. She was reluctant to be singled out in any way, repeatedly asking a reporter why she was being interviewed.

“In the past, if I were recognized, I would become an outcast,” said Polacheck, who eats her lunch alone in her classroom. “They’d say, ‘She’s trying to show off.’ “

The teachers named as ineffective — which had to be humilating — said they’ll look for ways to improve. They complained that the district hadn’t shown them the data.

This is the first of a series, which will assess individual teachers for whom there’s seven years of data.

Via the Hechinger Report.

Update: The LA Times series will prove to be the article of the year, writes Tom Vander Ark on National Journal.

United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union, is “really, REALLY peeved” by the “potentially explosive” story, writes Stephen Sawchuk at Teacher Beat. There’s talk the union will ask teachers to boycott the LA Times. But now that people know the data is available, they’re going to want to use it, he predicts.

Rick Hess thinks value-added analysis isn’t completely ready for prime time and says the Times should not have used teachers’ names. I have to say naming the teachers made me uncomfortable.

Dan Willingham also thinks value-added analysis is not good enough to use for evaluating individual teachers, though his example doesn’t make sense to me. He adds that a consensus has emerged that something has to be done about incompetent teachers. Most districts don’t have “a mechanism by which to ensure that incompetent teachers are not teaching.”

I have said before that if teachers didn’t take on the job of evaluating teachers themselves, someone else would do the job for them.

. . . This is the time for the teacher’s unions to make teacher evaluation their top priority. If they don’t, others will.

I don’t believe the teachers’ unions can take on this challenge, but they’d be wise to try.

About Joanne