California’s public school teachers are the highest paid in the country, earning about $63,000 a year on average, along with generous health-insurance and pension plans. Their salaries and benefits are funded with taxes paid by all of us—workers, consumers, homeowners, and businesses large and small. It’s useful to think of taxpayers as owners of our troubled public education franchise, which has a statewide high school dropout rate of about 30 percent. And for many of those who do graduate from high school and go on to college, remediation is essential. Value-added teacher evaluation—a method that estimates the contribution teachers make to student’s test-score gains—is a concept whose time has most definitely come. Californians are entitled to know precisely who is and isn’t delivering the goods for their children.
The Los Angeles Times last month published a much-anticipated follow-up to its path-breaking 2010 investigation, which ranked 6,000 third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teachers based on their students’ progress on standardized tests year after year. The updated rankings include data for more than 11,500 teachers. Using the California Public Records Act, Times reporters Jason Felch, Jason Song, and Doug Smith obtained student math and language arts scores for the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2003 through 2009. The newspaper commissioned Richard Budden, a senior economist and education researcher with the Santa Monica–based RAND Corporation, to analyze the data. Using the value-added technique, he converted the scores into percentile ratings, and then divided them into five equal categories from “least effective” to “most effective.”
The Times stories have exposed that what currently passes for teacher evaluation in California is useless. Currently, a principal or other administrator may visit a class several times (usually with a warning given long in advance), stay a few minutes, scribble down some notes, and leave. Union contracts generally spell out strict protocols about which administrator can perform the observations and when and how many times a teacher may be observed. The contracts also discourage unsatisfactory ratings by forcing principals to navigate a nightmarish labyrinth of costly and time-consuming documentation. Thanks to this ineffective process, more than 99 percent of all teachers receive satisfactory ratings, and after just two years in the classroom achieve tenure—essentially a job for life.
Value-added evaluations offer a better way of assessing a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses in the classroom. Though student math and English scores had been readily available to the school district and the teachers’ union for years, nobody did anything with them. Not only did the Times make the effort to get the scores and categorize them, the paper also published the data along with teachers’ names. In doing so, the Times incurred the wrath of United Teachers of Los Angeles president A. J. Duffy, who accused the paper of “teacher bashing” and immediately called for its boycott. Undaunted by the union’s bullying, the Times spent the next nine months showing the benefits of value-added teacher evaluations. The paper reported: “Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year. There is a substantial gap at year’s end between students whose teachers were in the top 10 percent in effectiveness and the bottom 10 percent. The fortunate students ranked 17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math.” The Times also pointed out that more than 8,000 students were stuck in classes with a bottom-rung teacher for at least two years in a row. Studies have shown that two consecutive years with a bad teacher can leave students so far behind that they will never catch up.
Value-added isn’t new, but the technique has gained greater acceptance recently as a way of evaluating teachers. Louisiana, Texas, and North Carolina have incorporated value-added into their teacher evaluation rules. Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek claims that while value-added analysis isn’t perfect, it’s “the best tool we have available to zero in on the impact of the individual teacher on student achievement gains. Using it, we can begin to distinguish between the best teachers and the worst, so we can begin rewarding the best while learning from their successes and improving—or removing—the worst.” Ideally, education reformers would like to see value-added measures used along with principals’ and outside experts’ observations, student portfolios, and parent input to reach a well-rounded evaluation.
As a result of the Times reports and the ensuing controversy, John Deasy, Los Angeles Unified’s new superintendent, felt compelled to develop an evaluation process of his own. His idea was to get teachers and administrators to participate in the plan, which includes a value-added assessment. Under Deasy’s proposal, 900 teachers—all of whom volunteered—would be offered a $1,250 stipend and other perks to participate. In short order, UTLA sought a court order to block the plan, claiming unfair labor practices because union bosses were not consulted. A superior court judge denied the union’s complaint late last month, and the voluntary program will go forth as planned, barring any other legal roadblocks by the union.
The teachers’ union’s problem with Deasy’s pilot program extends beyond a mere lack of consultation. Teachers’ unions dislike all forms of substantive teacher evaluation, viewing any kind of official differentiation among teachers as encouraging competition, which sows envy and thus undermines solidarity. Truth is, of course, objective evaluations show that some teachers really are more effective than others. To concede as much exposes the union to serious difficulties. Suppose, for example, that the more effective teachers suddenly feel entitled to greater compensation than their less competent peers? And when a school district faces a budget crunch, why shouldn’t the more effective teachers be spared pink slips? A seniority system that elevates clock-watchers and ignores teacher quality hardly seems fair to adults or kids.
To make value-added evaluations public only adds insult to injury. The union argues that the Times wrongly trumpeted the results, because the public cannot see the whole picture of a teacher’s worth. But the Times, to its credit, advertised that any teacher who so chose could leave a comment next to his or her score. Shortly after the first Times story appeared last year, National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel tried to dismiss value-added evaluations with a sports analogy. A .250 hitter in baseball, Van Roekel said, may possess other talents that a .350 hitter does not. He’s right, of course. But take Van Roekel’s analogy one step further. Every day during the baseball season, anyone can pick up a daily newspaper or check the Internet and find out all kinds of things about baseball players—their batting average, errors, home runs, strikeouts, and so forth. The publication of the teachers’ value-added scores is no more “teacher bashing” than the publication of hitters’ statistics is “batter bashing.”