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Publishing Teacher Evaluations? A Teacher Weighs In

February 24, 2012

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Bill Gates, arguing that publishing teachers’ value-added test scores doesn’t make for better teachers or better student outcomes.  I’m a public school teacher in Los Angeles, where I’ve seen the repercussions of publicly ranking teachers.  As such, I agree strongly with Mr. Gates that publicizing test scores, value-added or not, is fraught with problems.

I’ve been fortunate to be acknowledged for my successes as an educator, both as recipient of Teacher of the Year awards from Los Angeles Unified School District and Los Angeles County, and as a finalist for California’s Teacher of the Year.  My value as an educator isn’t derived solely by how my students fare on standardized tests, but more by what they create, by what they do. My students shoot films; they win grants; they volunteer hundreds of hours; they restore habitat; they earn scholarships; they write stories; they publish their work; and they matriculate at colleges from the University of California to the Ivy League.

As Mr. Gates rightly points out, publishing teachers’ value-added ratings has the potential to harm both our teachers and our students.  Recent research confirms what everyone has known for years – teachers make a difference in the lives of our students. We impact scores for sure, but we also impact our students more deeply – the careers they choose, the work they do, and the life choices they make.

Not only do publishing test results overemphasize their importance for the public and for teachers, it’s too reductive about what teachers and what students do. Nobody wants his/her child minimized and reduced down to a variable or number.  It isn’t productive for teachers to be diminished in this way either.

Here in Los Angeles, we’re well acquainted with value-added metrics, for better and for worse.  The Los Angeles Times first published its value-added analysis of elementary school teachers in 2010; even LAUSD has questioned the decision.  Since then, the exact model employed by the article’s authors to “rank the teachers” has been called into question.

And what resulted from publishing the ratings? Have students learned more? Have teachers become better?

Many teachers I know have become nervous and distrustful of not only the district, but of the metric itself, and the fact that it passes judgment on who they are professionally and personally.  This is unfortunate, because this distrust undermines the possibility that we could use the data to learn about what makes great teaching great. 

When you work with kids every day, you take your job personally.  Most teachers I know seek feedback about their strengths and shortcomings in a sincere effort to refine their professional practice, but none I know want this done in a public forum.  Public exposure of a teacher’s value-added score only further emphasizes the test, not what students may actually be learning and what teachers are doing to get them there.

Do I want to know who those high value-added teachers are?  Not necessarily. Knowing the value-added score of my colleagues when I greet them in the halls before the bell rings probably won’t make me a better teacher.  But I’m profoundly interested in what high value-added teachers do and the characteristics that go into being a high value-added teacher.

Are the teachers who achieve high value-added scores only “teaching to the test” and coaching students to the right answers, as we might fear? Or are they the teachers who work 60-70 hours a week, arriving early and staying late, collaborating with peers to create engaging lessons to invest students in school, not a test? What kind of classroom management styles do they employ? How and how often do they invest parents? Are these high value-added teachers also serving as softball coaches, play directors, and club advisors for activities outside the classroom?

Gathering data about these characteristics is a painstaking, time-consuming process, a process that will need to engage professionals from the fields of education, social sciences, and statistics.

If we choose to acknowledge that standardized test scores are important and that they’re linked to teacher effectiveness, then we need to have access to information about the characteristics that define teachers with high value-added ratings.  Real, empowering evaluation, as Mr. Gates points out, requires more than a narrow focus on test scores alone.  It requires an investigation into the mechanisms involved in reaching students effectively in all aspects of their lives.  This is the information we need, as teachers, to improve our practice and better student outcomes: not data on who is scoring high, but what that high scoring looks like in the classroom. 

It isn’t enough to brand teachers with their test scores and call it a day.

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