On Sunday the Los Angeles Times published a story that has created a small firestorm in education circles. Three reporters documented the effects that teachers have on their students’ test results. And they named names, so that now the world knows that students in John Smith’s fifth grade class start out ahead but lose ground as the year goes on, while Miguel Aguilar’s fifth graders follow the opposite trajectory: they do poorly at the start but outscore Mr. Smith’s students by year’s end.
Those are just two of the names the Times printed, and the union is furious, calling for a boycott of the paper.
But is it wrong to speak the truth? Is it wrong to call out ineffective teachers? That’s the debate going on, with even the Secretary of Education weighing in on whether it’s appropriate to make the names public. (For the record, Secretary Duncan approves.)
Let’s be clear about one thing: the Times is most definitely NOT breaking new ground when it tells us that some teachers are effective and others are not. Every parent knows that, and savvy parents lobby for teacher so-and-so for their children. My wife and I were at a block party just last night where the subject came up. Earlier in the day I was bicycling with friends, and one woman described how hard she had worked to make sure that her twins had a certain math teacher in middle school.
I firmly believe that just about everyone in any school can tell you who the really good teachers are in the building. Whether they will tell you is another story, perhaps, but everyone knows who’s good and who’s bad.
Reading the Times piece I was reminded of a paper that Dan Fallon, formerly of Carnegie Corporation, shared with me some years ago. It’s a powerful demonstration of the influence good teachers have. I have a chapter in my new book, Below C Level, about this as well.
I applaud the Times for bringing this to the forefront. I worry that it could be a step backward if it merely heightens the significance of scores on bubble tests, but that’s a risk worth taking.
One phrase in one sentence early in the piece is the key, in my view: “year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall.”
In Los Angeles and across the country, education officials have long known of the often huge disparities among teachers. They’ve seen the indelible effects, for good and ill, on children. But rather than analyze and address these disparities, they have opted mostly to ignore them.
That’s the central point: the adults in charge have known of the damage that some teachers are doing—and have done nothing, or nothing effective anyway, about it. That’s the high tolerance for mediocrity that I find alarming, and that’s what must be addressed, and soon.
Of course it’s possible. Two years ago we watched the chair of the math department in a DC high school going over student scores with his faculty. He was able to pinpoint which teachers were apparently not doing a good job of teaching particular concepts (quadratic equations, for example) because he had student results matched up with their teachers. His response was to offer those teachers new strategies and approaches, to give them opportunities to get better. How can anyone find fault with that?
The next step, of course, is to remove those teachers who, for whatever reason, do not improve.
So rather than boycott the LA Times, I say we should all subscribe. And we should turn up the heat on administrators who refuse to set and maintain high standards for their teachers, and on unions that don’t work hard to give teachers opportunities to be excellent. Your thoughts?
Who’s teaching L.A.’s kids? [LA Times, 08/14/2010]
The Amazing Miss A and Why We Should Care About Her [Dan Fallon's 2001 paper]