How the LA Times Got the Teacher Ratings Wrong

Last month the Los Angeles Times decided to publish their own “ranking” of teacher “effectiveness” in the LA Unified School District, based entirely on test scores. The move was extremely controversial, and the Times was slammed by education experts for their flawed methodology.

Today, however, comes a story that proves just how flawed and misleading the LA Times teacher ratings really were. It’s a story of a recently retired LAUSD teacher who was ranked as “the worst” by the LA Times – a ranking that came as a huge surprise to her former students:

Faye Ireland knows that she was a good teacher. She doesn’t depend on test scores to tell her that. She has stacks of letters from former students, enduring relationships with their parents and a reputation for managing the most challenging kids on campus.

But it bothered Ireland plenty when she was publicly branded “least effective” last month in The Times’ ratings of elementary school teachers. The ranking, in an online database with the “Grading the Teachers” project relies on students’ progress on standardized exams to measure teacher effectiveness.

What happened? Is Ireland just making herself sound good to cover up a flawed teaching style?

Nope. What happened is that by actually giving her students – particularly her ESL students – the help and instruction they needed, instead of wasting time on a test, she made a huge and positive impact in the lives and in the educational futures of her students, but at the expense of her “ranking” in some bullshit test-driven metric:

Ireland knew that if they landed in ESL programs in middle school, they would have few chances to take challenging academic classes. “Their parents worked with me like crazy, and we got them through all the things they had to do.”

By the end of each year, “every one of my students was fluent in English,” she recalled. “That’s what I set out to do.”

Other teachers warned her that her test scores would take a hit…

But she was looking beyond the test, beyond the classroom, even. “I wanted to transition those kids into English. I wanted them to know they could accomplish this, that nothing was off limits to them.”

In other words, she could have done what the state and the LA Times wanted – teach to the test – or she could have actually paid attention to her students, understood their actual educational needs, and made sure those needs were met so that they can thrive in their later years of schooling.

She did the latter, and that’s what makes a truly great teacher. By any standard her work would be seen as a huge success, and she would be held up as a model educator.

That is, under any standard except the one the LA Times used to brand her as the “least effective” in the entire LAUSD.

Now it’s possible that Ireland succeeded in some areas, was weaker in others (such as test scores). Only a full and comprehensive evaluation of teachers that includes an assessment of all their skills and accomplishments can truly tell whether a teacher is “good” or not.

That is precisely what the teachers’ unions are calling for. And that is precisely what the LA Times rejected in their reckless and flawed ratings, based only on test scores – which as most teachers, parents, and students understand, should not be the only thing education is about.

Ireland’s story shows what will happen if the attack on public schools, led by people such as US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the LA Times, succeeds. Schools will become full of students who are taught to do well on a test, instead of having their other educational needs met.

If that’s what the education privatizers want, then that’s their choice. But for those of us who actually want good schools with good teachers in them, we would do well to continue to push back against the flawed LA Times teacher evaluations, and ensure that whatever LAUSD and California come up with next to assess teachers, that it is holistic and not focused on tests to the exclusion of actual educational needs.

6 thoughts on “How the LA Times Got the Teacher Ratings Wrong”

  1. but the stories are many.

    Test scores should never be used as the sole reason to keep or fire a teacher. Can they inform, sure. But we have a tyranny of very small numbers, and minimal context.

    The LA Times’ value-added analysis is also misleading on its face. What they’re comparing is, did a child who rated “proficient” last year turn out “proficient” this year, or advanced or basic or below basic?

    But, to call that value-add is just wrong. They’re not the same tests. Indeed, one might reasonably expect that the kids entering 5th grade would start the year “below basic” on the 5th grade test, even if they ended 4th grade at “advanced”. They haven’t been taught the 5th grade material yet.

    This teacher was very right in her belief that english literacy skills were key for her students. There is no way they’d be able to advance in math or science if they’re struggling with english literacy and comprehension, often from households with low literacy in their native language. I invite anyone passing judgement on this to go take a biology class in spanish.

    It’s also important to note that the math tests, especially above 2nd grade, rely heavily on word problems. I’m fine with that – word problems are important. BUT, it’s important to understand diagnostically that any child with reading difficulties will not score even “Basic” on the California math even if they can do a worksheet of numbers only with no mistakes. You have to delve deeper to know if the problem is the reading or the mathematical skills.

    Finally, the random error in these tests is large. I’ve watched my daughter’s class go through the elementary school teachers, and I’ve watched the scores go up and down for her class and others, and frankly, it looks more like noise than like any teacher or grade has more influence than any other. To get any serious trends you’d need at least 10 classes … and I might point out, we completely change out the curriculum in California more often than that.

  2. was when they showed that you could predict the 4th grade scores by knowing the 5th grade teacher…

  3. The LA Times is absolutely right – this woman was, in fact, the least effective teacher in LAUSD.

    And a very elegant and impressive last place finish it is, too.

    So can we now state that since she is the least effective teacher, and obviously has done so well with her students, that LAUSD doesn’t have a problem of ineffective teachers?

    (Even at the Olympics, someone has to finish last.)

  4. But… there actually are ineffective teachers out there. If I may indulge in anecdote…

    My daughter got stuck with a non-functional teacher back in the eighth grade. She was reading at high-school level, she wrote well, but she couldn’t spell to save her life (dysgraphia). “Testing” channeled her into a social studies class of low-performing students with a teacher more concerned with keeping order than educating children.

    My child’s grades took immediately took a nose-dive. If my wife had not taken advantage of the school’s offer to let parents sit in on classes, we would never have found out that her teacher was burnt-out, nearing retirement and making no effort to engage with his students.

    My wife raised a ruckus and our daughter was transferred to a GATE class, where she flourished. She is now a 4.0 history major in college.

    Not every family is fortunate to have a parent who can get that involved. So, I’m opposed to blanket testing on behalf of students as much as teachers.

    However, I’m not the only parent who has encountered a problem teacher. Corporate style metrics are not the answer, so we need to promote real alternatives that address the real concerns of parents.

    Me, I’m all in favor of “throwing money at the problem”. I have volunteered as a parent-aide in a first grade classroom. I don’t know how any teacher manages twenty six-year-olds without help. It’s insane that a nation this wealthy won’t pay to put two adults to work in every classroom from K to 12.

    I believe that teaching is a profession and that education is a team effort, but I would support efforts by districts and unions to deal more effectively with individuals who have become exhausted and are unable to function in the classroom.

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