Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Teachers need to be paid based on their performance, not on seniority

The L.A. Times reports today that the L.A. Unified School District is moving in the right direction, but in my view that district still has not yet gone far enough:

In a dramatic turn for the country's second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified released school ratings based on a new approach that measures a school's success at raising student performance — the first in a series of high-stakes moves that will thrust the district into the center of the national debate over education reform.

Next month, the district will take the more controversial step of providing thousands of teachers with confidential ratings of their performance using the same approach, known as value-added. The district is also negotiating with the teachers union to include such measures in teachers' formal performance reviews, an effort the union bitterly opposes.

Along with some peer-review and the judgment of a school principal, how much progress a teacher's students make should determine how much the teacher is paid.

The new measure of academic success has been a top priority for incoming Supt. John Deasy, who formally takes over Friday. It comes as districts throughout the country are wrestling with the reliability and the proper use of the value-added approach, which estimates school and teacher performance by analyzing students' improvement on standardized tests in math and English.

There are, of course, some subjects, like art or music, where measuring student progress objectively is difficult. In those cases, peer-review and the judgment of the principal should decide how good the teacher is.

The district has had the data to conduct its own analysis for years but had never done so. Officials have said their adoption of the approach was hastened by a Times series and database released in August that rated elementary schools and about 6,000 elementary school teachers according to their value-added scores. The paper will release an updated database with the scores of 11,500 elementary teachers in the coming weeks, and later this year plans to expand it to include middle schools.

The L.A. Times has done a great public service with its project to promote value-added measurements of teacher performance.

The Los Angeles Unified School District's new school performance measure is likely to surprise many parents, who have traditionally compared schools — and at times purchased homes — based on the state's Academic Performance Index, which rates schools on a 1,000-point index based mainly on their students' abilities on standardized tests.

One thing I have never believed is that school A is better than school B if A has better test scores. The higher test scores are mostly a function of the home environments the students come from. However, if students at school C are making significantly better progress than students at school D are, then C is a better school.

Likewise, a teacher whose students come in with scores in the 50th percentile and leave with scores in the 60th percentile deserves more credit (and money) than her counterpart whose children scored in the 60th percentile coming in and stayed in the 60th going out.

The value-added approach focuses on how much progress students make year to year rather than measuring solely their achievement level, like the API, which is heavily influenced by factors outside a school's control, including poverty and parental involvement. Value-added analysis compares a student with his or her own prior performance, largely controlling for outside-of-school influences.

Because value-added is based on standardized test scores, most experts agree it should be one of several measures to determine school or teacher performance.

One argument against using standardized test scores is they force teachers to teach to the test. I don't see a problem with that, as long as the standardized tests are asking the right question. The reform is not to get rid of the tests; it's to make the tests as good as they can be.

Some critics say the value-added approach is too volatile to be used for teacher evaluations, but most experts say it is more accurate for campuses because it is based on the performance of hundreds, if not thousands, of pupils.

If volatility is a problem, then grade teacher performance over a few years, not just one.

The district's ratings, dubbed "Academic Growth Over Time," can send parents a very different signal about a school's performance. Take, for example, 3rd Street Elementary School in Hancock Park, which has an API score of 938, putting it among the highest-scoring schools in the district. Under the new growth measure, 3rd Street is one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the district.

"We've got to do a better job and reexamine," said 3rd Street Principal Suzie Oh, adding that she was shocked by the results.

It would not surprise me to know that some schools in Davis which are deemed very good are in fact not helping students make much progress.

Board member Richard Vladovic later said, "I think this is going to be a great tool to help parents."

But A.J. Duffy, outgoing president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in an interview that he suspects that administrators will use the new information punitively.

Punitively? Well, yes, if a teacher sucks.

Duffy and other union leaders have said they will not agree to a new teacher evaluation system that includes student test score data because they believe it is unreliable and will narrow the curriculum.

The teachers unions, predictably, want more money and no accountability for performance.

I agree that there are many great teachers, and all great teachers are underpaid. However, unless we insist on accountability, we won't get the best efforts out of our teachers and we won't get rid of those teachers who need to be fired.

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