Demanding innovation in the classroom

Faith Merino · September 1, 2010 · Short URL:

Online teacher database pits numbers against current practice


Many people likely check out menus online before they dine at a restaurant. Or they check out hotel venues on the Web before booking a registration.

What if it were possible for parents to go online and find out information about their child's teachers, specifically their effectiveness or, in some cases, their ineffectiveness? This would seem like an innovative way to improve education by bringing more information to light.

In Los Angeles, California, this is now a possibility. Yet the newly-published data - however helpful it may be in providing transparency into the school system - has a number of school organizations up in arms. 

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times made good on its promise to publish an online database ranking individual elementary school teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That’s 6,000 teachers and 470 elementary schools, covering a span of seven years, which the paper used to evaluate each individual teacher’s effectiveness in improving student test scores.   

By using “value-added” analysis.  “Value-added” analysis is a statistical model that measures a teacher’s and a school’s effectiveness based on student standardized test scores.  In the case of the Times’ database, English and math scores on California standardized tests were used to determine effectiveness.  Past scores are then used to predict a child’s future performance, so if Child X has ranked in the 13th percentile for math scores in the 3rd and 4th grade, he will more than likely score in the 13th percentile in the 5th grade as well.  But if the child ends up ranking above or below that predicted percentile, the difference between the predicted results and the actual results is the value that was either added or subtracted.

The Times notes that “value-added scores are estimates, not precise measures, and readers should not place too much emphasis on small differences in teacher percentiles.”  But nevertheless, the numbers are there for parents and teachers to see.

So all a parent has to do is go to the Los Angeles Times Web site, type their child’s new teacher’s name or elementary school into the search box, and see a profile of that teacher’s or school’s effectiveness in comparison to the rest of the teachers and schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

Too much or not enough pressure?

Admittedly, there is something seemingly inappropriate about publishing a person’s name and career history without that person’s consent.  Though all of the teachers were notified of their scores and given the chance to respond.

Additionally, considering all of the pressures that drive half of all teachers to quit within their first five years of teaching, this additional oversight may seem a bit overzealous. Lack of planning time, extreme workloads, student behavior, and feelings of powerlessness in school policy are among many of the reasons teachers decide to quit, according to a paper on teacher attrition.

According to the paper, an ineffective teacher can cause a child to regress, and many children in the study had two ineffective teachers in a row.

But niceties aside, the database isn’t looking at happy versus unhappy teachers.  It is looking at effective vs ineffective teachers.  What can be said for plain ol’ bad teachers?

And, if one stops for a moment to ignore the more sympathetic impulse that screams “those poor people!” one might actually agree that this is what is needed to shake up America’s public education system, in which both highly-effective and highly-ineffective teachers are guarded by tenure.

What if we looked at education from the vantage point of any entrepreneur?  To succeed as an entrepreneur, you constantly have to assess and reassess to determine what is working and what isn’t. Then you adapt accordingly. 

Many individuals and organizations have said that the same rule applies to education.

Data-driven education

Take Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, a middle school in Brooklyn, New York.  In the 2009-2010 school year Williamsburg Collegiate was the only school in New York City that saw 100 percent of its student body pass the state exams.  In grades 6-8, 75 percent passed with advanced scores.  There is obviously no one single factor that made the difference between Williamsburg Collegiate and its competitors, but Williamsburg is part of the Uncommon Schools network, which describes itself as “data-driven” education. 

In keeping with this “data-driven” philosophy, Williamsburg Collegiate -- unlike many of its competitor -- adopted a student-response system for its classrooms.  Using wireless “student response pads,” students can submit answers to quizzes or on-the-spot questions directly to the teacher’s computer, providing the teacher with immediate data with which to assess student understanding.  This data not only shows the teacher which students need more help, it also enables the teacher to gauge his or her own teaching effectiveness.

This is one of the deciding differences that separates the good teachers from the bad, according to Teach For America, a non-profit organization that recruits recent college grads to teach for two years in low income schools throughout the country.  Teach For America (TFA) has a reputation for producing superior results in the classroom, all of which falls on the shoulders of the teacher.  Research has shown that no other factor has as much influence on a student’s academic future as a teacher.  And in TFA’s exhaustive decades-long research into what makes a teacher that produces superior results, several common features have cropped up, including grit, determination, and organization. 

But most importantly, a teacher who gets great results, according to TFA, is one who looks for great results.  To be more specific, the most effective teachers are those who are continually reevaluating their methods to determine what is working and what isn’t. And, if something is not working, they overhaul their methods to get rid of it and try something new.

What does all of this have to do with the Los Angeles Times’ online teacher effectiveness database?  Put simply, the Los Angeles Times is looking at the data.  If getting superior results in the classroom means constantly evaluating student performance to determine what is and isn’t working, then isn’t the Los Angeles Times database doing just that? The only difference is they're focused on evaluating the teachers, and not the students.

Several groups are up in arms, stating the newspaper disregarded expert opinion on the use of the data.  In a statement made by president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten: “Today, the Los Angeles Times chose to ignore experts from across the country who have pointed out both the limitations and dangers of using, in isolation, the value-added method to rate a teacher’s performance. We are extremely disappointed that the Times gave no weight to these opinions, but we are more disturbed that teachers will now be unfairly judged by incomplete data masked as comprehensive evaluations.” 

Interestingly enough, Ms. Weingarten’s statement makes no mention of how this database will affect student learning or the Los Angeles public education system, and when pressed for comment, a representative for the American Federation of Teachers only reiterated what was stated in the press release. 

The California Teachers’ Association took a similar approach, as a statement by CTA president David A. Sanchez notes: “Publishing the database assembled by the LA Times as an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness or even as a ‘value-added’ assessment model is irresponsible and disrespectful to the hard-working teachers of Los Angeles.”

But a representative from the California Charter Schools Association that I spoke with had a more comprehensive response to the database.  While the California Charter Schools Association takes no official position on the database, “a lot of charters already use some sort of data—not necessarily ‘value-added' - to evaluate teachers, and they share this information with teachers and parents, so that best-practices are emulated.”

Charter schools are, by definition, innovative.  Innovators look at what methods and practices are working, and which ones are not, and they adjust accordingly. Isn't the Los Angeles Times database just calling on the whole public education system to innovate?

Image source:

Support VatorNews by Donating

Read more from our "Trends and news" series

More episodes