What Makes for an Effective Teacher?

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by Oliver Wang

The Los Angeles Times decided to set off a powder keg this weekend.

Here's the skinny:

The Times is running a series of stories on evaluating teacher "effectiveness" in the LAUSD. Their method of evaluation is based on a "value-added" model that essentially seeks to quantify how well students improve (or decline) after a year in the classroom of particular teachers. The LAT was able to use seven years of standardized test score data to look at how students performed with different LAUSD teachers and combined with other metrics (but the testing is a huge part of it), they:

converted the scores to percentile rankings and divided them into five equal categories, from "least effective" to "most effective." Later this month, The Times will post this data on its website. Readers will be able to look up individual teachers and schools and see their value-added ratings.

This story is already a clusterfuck of epic proportions and once that data actually gets posted - listing teachers by name—it's going to balloon to, uh, an even more epic clusterfuck.

Predictably, the teacher's union is going nuts, as well they should from a self-preservation p.o.v. This is the latest—and perhaps the most potentially damaging—attack on the credibility of their members, in a hostile, anti-teacher climate where "educational reform" has become a new mantra (but few seem to have great ideas on what that actual means).

The moment you introduce a method by which teachers can be ranked in simple order and in the short term, I can guarantee you, principals and other admins are going to get swamped by parents who will be trying to jockey to get their kids into the classrooms of the "most effective" teachers. We're talking stampede.[1] This will also undoubtedly fan the flames for those arguing for merit-based hiring/firing and/or pay decisions. The district (or better said, the union) has been the subject of several unflattering news stories that point out how incredibly difficult it seems to be to get rid of unwanted teachers. Now that parents and politicians will have a chart to point to[2], there's going to be even more calls for the district and union to dump the chaff and rethink its hiring and training procedures. Again.

Couple of things just to get out of the way. First, the district takes a lot of hits for being unwieldy, mismanaged, bloated, inconsistent, etc. and all of that is probably true. The power plays between the mayor's office, the district board, and other civic leaders is like a French period drama without all the wigs. All this is happening against a backdrop of nearly 700,000 students and over 80,000 employees, in a post-Prop 13 budgetary environment. In short, there's no easy answers here at all. I'm not saying the district deserves a pass but let's just say that running the LAUSD efficiently and effectively probably isn't as easy as running Bell into the ground.

Second of all, before some fruit fly in the comments tries to argue that the pink elephant in the room is illegal immigration, I think that's a whole 'nother conversation, and one that requires more discussion than just indiscriminate scapegoating that fails to take into account A) budget cuts to public school education over the last few decades in CA, especially after Prop 13 rejiggered property tax (a heavy base for school funding) and the ability to raise taxes to help fund education (and everything else in the state), B) the social mission of public education for all students, regardless of their (or their parents') immigration status, and C) how much of the district's woes are due solely to the size of its student population. It may be a conversation worth having but it's separate from this issue.

Back on topic: to me, the real issue here is a core problem that exists throughout the educational system, not just K-12 but certainly in college too:

Should teachers be evaluated for their teaching? Yes.
How? Umm....

In other words, I think almost anyone would agree that teachers—especially tasked with such an important job as they have—absolutely need to be given feedback and be evaluated for their effectiveness as teachers. I can't imagine anyone suggesting that acquiring a teaching credential means you're suddenly not subject to the same kind of on-the-job scrutiny as any employee, anywhere would be.

But coming up with a reasonable and rationale set of criteria to accomplish said evaluation is fraught with challenges.

The Times is using—as one of their baselines (albeit not their only one) —standardized testing of the students. Test scores go up after a year, in theory, that's meant to reflect "teaching effectiveness." But first of all, how can you devise a test whose results really speak to teaching effectiveness? And second, if teachers teach to the test, that may improve their standing on a numerical scale but is it improving the quality of education?

People like (I think "tolerate" may be a better word) standardized testing in schools because they like how it produces a simple score at the end of it. If you can quantify your problem, "fixing" it becomes a matter of finding ways to raise or lower that score. But as people on both sides of the teaching line will tell you, teaching effectiveness isn't like your credit rating. So much of what goes into making a good teacher is intangible and unquantifiable. The best teacher in my life was my high school Latin teacher. My Latin is terrible (then and now) but he was inspirational and nurturing in ways that transcended whatever could be measured on an AP test or my report card. I would wager that many, if not most, people had teachers they think of that way.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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