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Charles Kerchner

Charles Kerchner

Posted: August 16, 2010 12:25 AM

Every so often a newspaper story changes everything, or at least a lot. Such a story appeared in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, when the test scores of students from different teachers were compared. And the teachers were named.

In coming articles, the scores of hundreds of other teachers will also be publicly compared. Not as sexy as the outsized salaries being paid to public officials in Bell, but it is way more important.

I feel profoundly sorry for John Smith whose kids didn't score so highly and the other teachers who will be named in coming days. I'm sure that when they signed up to be a teacher many years ago, they didn't envisage being publicly pilloried. In one sense, the Times series is unfair to them. But the story underscored what both practicing educators and researchers have known for decades: some teachers are much more effective than others.

But public education isn't structured around recognizing or building on these differences. Not just in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but everywhere, public education borrowed the notion of interchangeable parts from industry and applied it to teaching. Public education is built around the logic that if a school has the right curriculum and properly trained teachers all of them can be reasonably effective. We know that this logic is wrong.

It's not picking the right reading or math program that counts; it's getting the right teachers and getting the right teaching. Teachers matter most. That's why the Times story is a game changer. Moving the emphasis from "picking the right program" to consciously building better teaching will change how schools are organized and run.

Lots of conventional practices can and should be questioned, including how teachers are trained, hired, and compensated. However, the place to start is not by lining up test scores and paying teachers accordingly. There are too many intervening variables, and too much imprecision in what is called "value added assessment" to make a one-to-one correspondence between test scores and teacher pay. (I'll write more about possibilities and limitations of value added assessment in future posts.) The more important beginning is to use the variations in student results by teacher to build the knowledge of teaching practice in schools. Let smart teachers build smart schools.

Schools are inhabited by many intelligent people, but they are largely dumb organizations. They doggedly refuse to learn from their own experiences. Partly this is because they are deeply engrained with what a recent public policy report called the "widget factory" mentality. In big city systems, in particular, schools have an organizational learning disability because they are judged by how well they comply with orders and directives more than they are judged by student results.

For a generation, public policy has tried to steer schools toward evidence-driven management and organization. LAUSD and other school districts have been slow to create the mechanisms that will allow schools to change their practice based on the evidence of best practices at schools. Teacher unions have been quick to resist any scrutiny of teaching practice that would yield comparison among teachers. Their stance is both wrongheaded and a waste of political resources.

Here's what can happen now.

The same data that the Times used should be made available by the end of the month and used by the schools.

Teachers should be trained in how to enter their own assessments and observations of student behavior, which teachers call "authentic assessment," into the district's My Data system or straightforward, easy to use, spreadsheets.

Schools should carve out time in the school week to discuss these data. United Teachers Los Angeles and the school district long ago agreed to a process for creating time in the day that makes such conversations possible, but this time is often ineffectively used.

Teachers should visit one another's classrooms and thereby enhance their craft. (A new book describes the practice of instructional rounds, something akin to the clinical learning practices of young physicians.)

All this is possible within current school budgets and capacity.

The plain lesson from the Times series is that if educators will not examine their own practice and build on it, someone else will do it for them...and to them.

The external data spotlight has changed schooling in Los Angeles before. When my colleagues and I were doing the research on reform efforts in LAUSD that led to the book Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, we followed how the school district was treated in the press. Throughout the 1950 and 1960s the district's reputation and self-image soared. It built hundreds of schools--a classroom a week according to one reckoning, and as one former administrator put it, the schools were considered the "best in the West." Then, in 1966, a state Assembly committee did the unthinkable. It published a comparison of school district test scores across the state. Los Angeles last among the ten largest districts.

The district's reputation went into decline in part because it was unwilling to confront
student-learning issues, and the public education rapidly went from a high-trust institution to one low-trust institution subjected to external scrutiny. History is repeating itself, and its lessons will be lost on those who refuse to learn them.