'L.A. Times' Series Examines Teacher Ratings

The Los Angeles Times is taking a groundbreaking step as part of a series on teacher effectiveness. It is planning to publish the names of more than 6,000 teachers, along with ratings indicating how effective they have been in raising their students' standardized test scores. The series explores one of the most controversial issues in public education today: how teachers should be measured. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to one of the series' co-authors, Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Jason Felch.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here's the scenario at one Los Angeles elementary school, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Students in teacher Miguel Aguilar's fifth-grade class consistently make gains on standardized tests while next door, fifth graders who pass through teacher John Smith's class each year fall behind. Same kids, same challenges - the message is that who teaches your children matters.

The Los Angeles Times has embarked on a project to measure the impact of effective teaching. And in doing so, the paper is colliding with some of the most controversial issues in education today. How should teachers be measured, and should those measurements be public?

Well, joining us to explain the project is Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Jason Felch.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JASON FELCH (Investigative Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And one of the most controversial issues here is that you plan to publish the names of more than 6,000 teachers, along with scores showing whether they've been effective or ineffective.

First of all, how did you get all this information and all the names?

Mr. FELCH: In California, under the Public Records Act, we were able to obtain this information from the school district itself, so the district's attorneys decided that this was actually public record information.

SIEGEL: You still could have published it without actually using the names. Why did you decide to make the names public?

Mr. FELCH: Well, the big takeaway from our series - and after, you know, spending a lot of time analyzing this data - is that individual teachers really matter. The difference between teachers can be enormous, and which teacher a child gets is often left up to chance. So it would be difficult to have the information about which teachers are effective and which teachers are less effective, and not make that public.

We weighed this question very carefully. In the data that we're about to release, there are thousands of highly effective teachers who've been ignored by the school district and by their principals for years. The schools around the country do nothing to study these highly effective teachers, do nothing to reward them or recognize them.

There are lots of lessons to be learned from this information, and ignoring it does not seem to be the answer.

SIEGEL: Well, would you expect, based on this information, that parents will start calling schools and saying: I want my kid to have Mr. Aguilar next year, not Mr. Smith?

Mr. FELCH: Yeah. I think that's very likely to happen. And I think it's a reasonable thing to happen, too. I think some parents are going to learn that the teacher that their child is assigned to, by this somewhat narrow measure, is not very effective at instructing in math and English - or at least, that those results aren't coming through on standardized tests.

What we're making clear to parents - and all other readers - on our database and in our stories is this is not the sole measure of a teacher. And a lot of parents care about things beyond standardized tests, and this can't tell them about that. This can only tell them how good a teacher is at raising or lowering a student's performance on standardized tests.

SIEGEL: The numbers that you're using are called value-added. I want you to explain what that means.

Mr. FELCH: Value-added is a somewhat complex statistical approach. But in essence, what it's doing is trying to isolate the impact that a single teacher has on his or her students. The way it does that is with standardized test scores. It basically looks at a single student's prior performance and says: This student, amongst his peers at this grade level, was in the - let's say 60th percentile. Well, we would expect that that would be the same under, you know, let's say Miss Judy.

If the student goes up under Miss Judy relative to his peers to the 80th percentile, well, that appears that Miss Judy was doing something right. If the student goes down to the 40th percentile, it suggests that something in Miss Judy's instruction was not working.

This wouldn't be important information with just a single student's change. But when you look at Miss Judy's classes year after year after year, then that difference that each child - what he gains or loses each year with Miss Judy -that becomes statistically significant and, in fact, very important.

SIEGEL: Last fall, the National Research Council reported that school districts should not prematurely promote the use of value-added approaches to reward or punish teachers. I'm quoting from their release. It said: Too little is known about the accuracy of these methods to base high-stakes decisions on them right now.

Mr. FELCH: That's true. And I think there's a very active debate right now about what's the best use for this data. Some school districts use this to reward effective teachers with merit pay. Some schools districts use this to target struggling teachers with professional development. Some school districts, like Washington, D.C., use this as 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation, and can use it in a decision to remove an ineffective teacher.

We are not making policy advice on how this information should be used, and it's by no means the complete measure of a teacher. But it fills a huge void. For years, we have known nothing about this. And so this is a window, and it may be a narrow window, but it's an important window into how our teachers are doing.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you for talking about this.

Mr. FELCH: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Jason Felch, talking about the series that he is co-authoring, called "Grading the Teachers."

The database of teachers is expected to go public online sometime in the next few weeks. But before that, teachers in the database are invited to comment on their scores.

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