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Shine a Light

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Over the past many years, we have been inundated with articles, columns, essays and rants about the widening red-blue divide in this country. People on one side of the divide can no longer even fathom the perspective of people across the way. We are a long way from reconciliation.

I'm afraid a similar chasm has opened in the world of public education. On one side are people who favor data-driven accountability, school choice, autonomy and pay-for-performance (to name a few issues). I'll call them (somewhat inaccurately) "outsiders." On the other are "insiders," those who feel that market-based reforms and an over-emphasis on testing constitute an assault on public education and specifically on teachers.

Rhetoric on both sides is tilting toward invective. Name-calling is crowding out dialogue. The pitched battle earlier this year over Colorado's Senate Bill 191 - now the educator effectiveness law - exemplifies the tenor of the debate.

An ongoing Los Angeles Times series, "Grading the Teachers," provides the latest flashpoint in this escalating rhetorical war. The newspaper hired a researcher and crunched seven years of data from standardized tests to create "value-added" scores for 6,000 third- through fifth-grade Los Angeles Unified School District teachers.

This week, the Times published a searchable database that allows readers to find any L.A. teacher in grades three through five and examine his or her value-added score. Is this teacher, by this measure, getting below average, average or above average test score growth from his or her students?

Some teachers' scores are based on multiple years of data, some on just a couple. Any teachers in the proscribed grades who taught 60 or more students between 2002-03 and 2008-09 were included.

The L.A. school system has had this data for some time but has never released it to teachers - who might have used it to reflect on their practice. This is one reason the newspaper decided to make the information public.

Leaders of local and national teachers' unions responded with varying degrees of outrage. Some trotted out the canard that the paper was "anti-teacher" because it chose to make public this potentially embarrassing and methodologically questionable data.

Fred Klonsky, a Chicago teacher and popular blogger wrote:

For these reporters and editorial board, there is no complexity in assessing student performance that a series of tests and growth scores can't simplify. It is simple enough that based on their results they are willing to put the names of teachers who don't match up to the reporter's expectations in their article.

This is a shameful act of attempting to humiliate teachers. It is teacher bashing at its worse (sic). They treat teachers like Johns busted for hiring a prostitute. Why not publish their home addresses and phone numbers?

Watch out. That's next

Meanwhile, some leaders of the "outsiders" were over the moon. Charter school advocate and hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson said on his blog:

I have no doubt that it will be among the most important and influential education-related articles of the year. This is breakthrough journalism.

And education journalist John Merrow wrote on his blog:

I applaud the Times for bringing this to the forefront. I worry that it could be a step backward if it merely heightens the significance of scores on bubble tests, but that's a risk worth taking...

So rather than boycott the LA Times, I say we should all subscribe. And we should turn up the heat on administrators who refuse to set and maintain high standards for their teachers, and on unions that don't work hard to give teachers opportunities to be excellent.

Even as Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other prominent "outsiders" backed the Times, the paper itself published the database last weekend with a somewhat defensive explanation:

Although value-added measures do not capture everything that goes into making a good teacher or school, The Times decided to make the ratings available because they bear on the performance of public employees who provide an important service, and in the belief that parents and the public have a right to the information.

And there were prominent voices of moderation in this debate. Even some prominent education voices usually associated with the "outsiders" flinched at the Times' decision to publish teachers' names and value-added scores. Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote:

I have three serious problems with what the LAT did.

First, as I've noted here before, I'm increasingly nervous at how casually reading and math value-added calculations are being treated as de facto determinants of "good" teaching...

... Second, beyond these kinds of technical considerations, there are structural problems. For instance, in those cases where students receive substantial pull-out instruction or work with a designated reading instructor, LAT-style value-added calculations are going to conflate the impact of the teacher and this other instruction...

...Third, there's a profound failure to recognize the difference between responsible management and public transparency. Transparency for public agencies entails knowing how their money is spent, how they're faring, and expecting organizational leaders to report on organizational performance. It typically doesn't entail reporting on how many traffic citations individual LAPD officers issued or what kind of performance review a National Guardsman was given by his commanding officer.

So here's where I come down on this. The methodology may be imperfect. Some teachers can't be evaluated based on value-added criteria. Yes, some embarrassment will result.

Still, this information serves the public interest. If we could get similar data from Denver or any other school district, I would be inclined to publish it.

I'm no longer the parent of a school-aged child, but if I were, I would want this kind of data as I chose a school and possibly even a classroom for my child. Yes, this information will make principals' lives more difficult, as pushy parents demand spaces for their kids in the most effective teachers' classrooms. But isn't parental engagement what we all want?

Arguments against the release from people like Hess are reasonable and give me pause. There are a number of red flags here. But then "insiders" like Klonsky make arguments so specious that it makes me think the more we know the better, even if the information is far from perfect.

Here's what started bothering me during the SB-191 debate, and continues to fester. Some (nowhere near all) "insiders" - teachers and teacher advocates - have made the following arguments at different times over the past few months.
  1. Anyone who wants to use imperfect, emerging data systems as part of a teacher evaluation system is by definition hostile to teachers.
  2. Standardized tests, in any event, don't measure the stuff that really matters.
  3. Any form of evaluation that has a public component, or is released publicly represents a deliberate effort to shame and humiliate teachers.
  4. Any school that is not part of the traditional public system and shows results above and beyond those of similar schools from within the public system is teaching to the test and creating automatons lacking critical thinking skills. Their students won't succeed in higher education, and these schools aren't the promising models "outsiders" claim they are.
  5. Teachers get all the blame when the main challenge to student success comes from disengaged parents and unprepared kids. There's only so much teachers can do given the raw materials with which they must work.
  6. Anyone who hasn't been a teacher can't have a legitimate point of view about how to reform public education. And those former teachers who have become philosophical "outsiders" are corporate toadies and sell-outs.
So the message I'm getting from these folks is that only they know what constitutes good teaching and learning. It isn't measurable in any traditional sense, but real professionals know it when they see and feel it. If only all the buttinskis from foundations and community organizations and non-profits and the media would let teachers teach, and give them adequate resources, everything would be dandy.

History shows these arguments to be naïve and ignorant at best, disingenuous and dishonest at worst. I'm still waiting for specific, affirmative, measurable ideas and plans from the faction of people who hate what's happening now.

So far all I'm hearing is why everything Obama, Duncan, Bloomberg, Klein, Vallas, Bennet and Boasberg are trying is an unconscionable attempt to dismantle public education.

We'd all like to see better neighborhood schools and more money, wisely spent, for public education. So, "insiders," how, exactly, do we get there from here?

I eagerly await your responses.