RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Any day now, 6,000 elementary teachers here in Los Angeles will see their names published online, along with data showing how much their students improved on standardized tests. The Los Angeles Times has promised to release the information to help parents measure how effective the teachers are.
As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the database has sparked a debate on how to evaluate teachers.
LARRY ABRAMSON: The Times story's use of fancy number-crunching to compare the effectiveness of teachers in the nation's second-largest school system: It has led to an explosive controversy in the city. Some argue it's about time parents had an objective measure to compare their kid's teachers. Others say this is just a way to humiliate educators.
Mr. A.J. DUFFY (President, United Teachers of Los Angeles): We are outraged that the Times would put this out, and put people in harms way.
ABRAMSON: A.J. Duffy is president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. So far, the newspaper has only published analyses of individual teachers and schools. The union has tried to get out in front of the story, by publishing critiques of the method used to compare the scores. It's known as the value-added method because it compares test score gains or declines.
Mr. DUFFY: At this point, value added is so flawed that I could not agree that it would be a useful tool.
ABRAMSON: A.J. Duffy has received some support from researchers who agree the value-added approach is open to error, and that those mistakes could lead parents and administrators to the wrong conclusions. A number of papers over the past year have cautioned that there are just too many variables in student performance to rely heavily on student test scores.
Tim Sass, of Florida State University, says there are dozens of factors outside a teacher's control that can limit improvement in test scores. For example...
Professor TIM SASS (Professor of Economics, Florida State University): The principal always gives the weaker students to the new teachers, let's say, and tends to favor their more senior teachers at their school.
ABRAMSON: The L.A. Times analysis carefully tries to correct for that, and for many other variables. And in fact, value-added analysis is a well-accepted approach that has been used for decades in education research, though not for the purpose of publicly comparing individual teachers.
William Sanders, one of the fathers of value added, now works for a research company called SAS. Sanders says value-added analysis can accurately single out star performers or ineffective teachers. But as to those in between...
Dr. WILLIAM SANDERS (Senior manager, SAS): Can you distinguish within the middle? No you can't - even with the most rigorous, robust value-added process that you can bring to the problem.
ABRAMSON: And Sanders worries that parents may come to the wrong conclusions about those middle-performers.
The Los Angeles Unified School District admits it has it has been sitting on this data, and hasn't used it to help teachers improve. Now, Deputy Superintendent John Deasy says, the real tragedy would be if all this information were simply ignored.
Mr. JOHN DEASY (Deputy Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District): So you would never evaluate a teacher on - only using this metric. On the other hand, you wouldnt, in my opinion, evaluate a teacher completely not considering how students are doing, over time, in achievement.
ABRAMSON: Deasy says the controversy is now spurring the district to develop a new teacher evaluation system that uses value-added data.
Union President A.J. Duffy says, slow down.
Mr. DUFFY: They can't. It has to be negotiated.
ABRAMSON: The two sides have agreed to sit down and talk.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
When school starts next month in Los Angeles, the doors will open at what's been dubbed the Taj Mahal of public schools. The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, in downtown L.A., costs close to $600 million. That makes it the most expensive in the country.
Supporters say the money was approved in 2006, when Taj Mahal might have felt a little bit more like a compliment.
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WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.