August 17, 2010
The LA Times at its Best
The financial troubles of the Los Angeles Times are no secret. The Tribune Company’s bankruptcy filing, the frequent staff cuts and “buyouts” have become chatter in countless media blogs and at cocktail parties across the Southland. The conventional thinking seems to be that the Times just can’t cut it anymore, the reduced staff and the diminished “news hole” have left it a “shadow of itself.”
If the past few weeks’ product is any indication, the reports of its demise are definitely premature. Despite the challenges facing the smaller staff, they continue to produce important news stories that have enormous impact on Southern California.
Last month, the Times broke the story of the exorbitant salaries earned by several of the officials of Bell, California. The investigative series prompted cities across the state and the nation to examine what their local leaders earn and how transparent their salary structures are.
Apparently, local groups had sought the data on what the Bell officials earned but were stone-walled since no one in the small city had both the resources and the motivation to go to court and spend the time and money on lawyers to demand release of the documents. Only the Times had the interest and the resources to demand and legally force the release of the explosive information. That information is leading to the exposure of the corruption that existed in Bell and likely in many smaller communities across the state.
This past Saturday the Times did another Pulitzer-worthy story. In what was an exhausting culling of seven years of data, the Times, in one fell swoop, dismantled some of the mythologies that have permeated discussions of student achievement, teacher quality, and the public schools for years. Their eye-opening study uncovered some of the key reasons why some teachers are effective, others aren’t and how to assess each as to their effectiveness.
In examining years of math and English test scores of the Los Angeles Unified District the Times rated teachers on their students’ progress on standardized tests from year to year. As the Times pointed out, “each student’s performance is compared with his or her own in past years, which largely controls for outside influences often blamed for academic failure: poverty, prior learning and other factors.”
Incidentally, this data and method of analysis that the Times used have been available to the LAUSD as a means to test teacher effectiveness, but they have never been used. Among the reasons is that California law forbade the utilization of test score data in the evaluation of teachers, a testament to the strength of California’s teachers unions. It’s a bit like telling Joe Torre that when he picks his pitchers for the Dodgers he can’t look at their ERA or their won-lost percentage—-that data, to Sacramento’s way of thinking, would be “misleading.”
The Times’ findings are a revelation: highly effective teachers propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year; some students land in the poorest performing teachers classrooms year after year—“a devastating setback”; contrary to popular belief, “the best teachers are not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas”; although many parents fixate on “picking the right school” for their kids, “it matters far more which teacher the child gets;” many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers’ effectiveness were not (neither experience nor training nor education had much to do with whether teachers were effective).
Each of these findings is buttressed by convincing data in the Times analysis.
One might imagine that teachers and administrators alike would welcome the analysis and the eye opening insight into their effectiveness that the “value added approach” of evaluation offers. If one isn’t doing well, there are ways to improve. But, sadly, that is not the case.
In a mind-boggling assault on reason, A.J Duffy and United Teachers of Los Angeles, our teachers union, first asserted that the Times article “added nothing which would lead to a legitimate discussion about how best to improve teaching and learning in our schools”—-hardly true. Then, a day later, Duffy called for “a massive boycott” of the Times because the Times “is leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by a test.”
Neither the Times, nor any reasoning person, would suggest that a teacher be judged by “a” test. However, if, over several years, a teacher consistently fails to improve his/her students’ achievement while other teachers facing the same demographic and socio-economic factors do better,
what other conclusion can one draw but that something is wrong
That’s what Duffy and the UTLA fear, a way to assess competence and, inversely, incompetence. Apparently, Duffy and his cohorts want seniority, and seniority alone, to be the criterion for evaluating and paying teachers——a prescription for the disastrous mess we are in.
The Times made clear that “standardized test scores don’t tell us everything about learning.” The Times isn’t even urging what the Obama administration itself suggests—-that test scores be utilized for at least half of a teacher’s evaluation. But that’s not enough for Duffy and the UTLA. UTLA’s answer seems to be that if you don’t like the message—-however moderate and reasoned it is—- kill the messenger. Through their boycott they aim to intimidate the Times in the hopes that it will retreat from pursuing and publishing the balance of its research.
The Times deserves bravos not boycotts. It has injected into the debate about one of the major ills confronting our society—-the decline of the public schools—-meaningful data, analysis and reason. It is a shining moment for the Times. It has taken some courage, especially in economically challenging times, to take on some well entrenched preconceptions and the powerful and large UTLA (whose onslaught was all too predictable).
The Times is alive and kicking and doing what the Fourth Estate should do: illuminate, analyze, expose and bring reason to difficult issues.
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