Schooled by the L.A. Times: The good, the bad, and the ugly of ‘Who’s teaching L.A.’s Kids?’

Fidelibus is a ‘no b.s.’ type of person.

That’s how one student described me in my most recent set of student evaluations–assessments from those enrolled in my ENG 214 (Sophomore Composition) class at San Francisco State this past spring–my last, in fact, as I am leaving teaching.

I begin this post with those words because they tell you something about me–as a person and as a teacher.  It is true that I hate b.s.–I hate hearing it, and I refuse to spout it to other people.  That is partly why I had a reputation of being a “hard grader” among my students: I insisted that any work earning a C grade in my class was truly competent, and any grade earning higher than a C was indeed quite strong, or–in the case of an A–truly excellent.

I taught writing at SF State for nine years, and during that time, I also taught a semester at Lowell High School and a year at Berkeley High.  Before I came to San Francisco, I was a teacher’s assistant in two public high schools in San Diego. I have spent nearly all of my adult life thus far working in education–and that is to say nothing of the 23 full years I spent as a student–from elementary school through graduate school and a year spent earning my teaching credential for secondary ed.

As you might expect, all of this time spent in schools has led me to form some opinions about education–about what works and why and what doesn’t.  So when the Los Angeles Times published a story on Sunday titled, “Who’s teaching L.A.’s kids?”, I read it with a good deal of interest.

Two things were obvious to me right at the start of the article–first, that the series was going to be controversial, and second, that the Times was saying things that have needed to be said about education in California for a long, long time.

I’ll get to the controversy in due time, but first I want to touch on why this article resonated with me so strongly, and why I feel certain points raised by the authors not only echo my experience as an educator, but also are so necessary for all of us–educators, students, parents, and everyone else–to talk about, debate, and ultimately face head-on if we want California to once again stand as a model to the rest of the nation of how to do public education right.

Early in their article, the authors–Jason Felch (who taught middle school in San Francisco before embarking on a career in journalism) and Jason Song–note the following:

Most districts act as though one teacher is about as good as another. As a result, the most effective teachers often go unrecognized, the keys to their success rarely studied. Ineffective teachers often face no consequences and get no extra help.

It is certainly true that we pay our teachers “as though [one] is about as good as another,” and while the “star” teachers are known in every school in which I’ve taught, very little is done to have those teachers serve as models from whom other faculty might learn.  Have I taught in most districts in California?  No.  But I have taught in three different counties in two vastly different geographical regions of the state, and I have seen my share of amazing, excellent, dedicated teachers; but I have also seen truly bad teachers stay in the profession while everyone who could do the work of firing them chooses instead to look away.  One high school teacher I worked with (a history teacher) showed movies to his classes every single day, and I am not exaggerating–every day there was a movie on in his classroom.  At that particular school, it appeared this practice was tolerated because the teacher was older and “nearing retirement,” so he would “be gone soon anyway.”  I took this attitude to mean that the administration felt that sacrificing the learning of a few years’ worth of kids was simply the price of doing business as we all waited for this teacher to retire.

Another teacher (English, this time) had his students read books aloud in class every day; he told me he did so because, “They wouldn’t read otherwise.”  These were high school seniors.  And if by chance you are reading this and thinking, “Well–it’s better than the students not reading at all,” do know that volumes of academic research have shown that while reading aloud can improve comprehension when it is used as a tool to enhance engagement, if relied on exclusively, reading aloud slows reading rate–and therefore limits reading comprehension over time.

While we’re on the subject of skills, you should also know that the majority of California high school graduates who go on to college require remediation in English or math, and many of them require remedial classes in both disciplines.  Keep in mind–these are the students who actually make it into college; it is reasonable to assume that those who don’t make it into college after high school are even worse off academically than their college-bound peers, but for now we’ll focus on the ones who do attend college, in this case, our public California State University system.

The Collegian Online, the student-run news outlet at California State University, Fresno, reported on this issue fairly recently, noting that:

[A]n estimated 60 percent of incoming first-time freshman have not attained college-level proficiency in English or math during high school, requiring them to take remedial courses once they get to the university.

To help lower the number of those who need remediation, the California State University (CSU) board of trustees initiated an ‘early start’ program that will help categorize those students who will need remediation and get them on the path to proficiency before they enter college.

I hope it concerns you that the CSU is implementing an ” ‘early start’ program that will help categorize those students who will need remediation and get them on the path to proficiency before they enter college,” because what that means is the CSU is committing an enormous amount of resources to providing remedial education to incoming freshmen–so much so that they have involved themselves in the practice of trying to reduce the need for remediation altogether.  I thought that’s what high school was for, to get our students proficient in the skills they will need to be successful in college–or in their lives as thinking citizens–so it seems odd that the CSU has had to create a special program with that as the goal.  I thought we already had such a “special program,” and that its name was “secondary education.”  My mistake.

I mention all this because it speaks to the problems the Times reporters are depicting in their article–though their focus is on the schools in L.A. Unified, the issues the authors detail are present in districts throughout California, and the problems in our schools have profound effects on our young people, limiting their choices and hindering their progress long after they graduate from high school.  We should be ashamed as a state that more than half of our high school graduates have not mastered basic concepts in math and English by the time they exit our public school system.  More importantly, we should be channeling this shame into determination to change what we need to change in order to improve every young person’s chances of success.

But what do we need to change?  That question is central to all education reform, but it is also the source of the controversies that delay such reform in the first place.  In order for us to “fix” education, we have to agree on what its problems are, and we have yet to be able to do that.  Even worse is that the “opposing sides” in the education debate (usually depicted in the press as the teachers union on one side and pretty much anyone who might suggest that change is needed on the other) often seem more content calling each other out rather than working together to improve the health of our schools.

This brings us to the brouhaha surrounding the Times article, which centers in particular around first, the authors’ claim that “value-added analysis” can confidently be used to assess an individual teacher’s effectiveness, and second, the upcoming publishing of a database of teachers compiled by the Times that will rank every teacher in all of L.A. Unified by his or her “effectiveness” as determined by the “value-added analysis” performed by the Rand Corporation for the paper.

Here’s how Felch and Song–the article’s authors–explained the process of “value-added analysis”:

The Times used a statistical approach known as value-added analysis, which rates teachers based on their students’ progress on standardized tests from year to year. Each student’s performance is compared with his or her own in past years, which largely controls for outside influences often blamed for academic failure: poverty, prior learning and other factors.

Few people in education are fans of standardized tests, and plenty of people outside of the field of education are critics as well.  Because I have studied reading theory extensively, I, too, have not felt that standardized tests offer a very full understanding of what someone does or does not know.

That said, instruction is based on assessment: As an instructor, I needed to have ways of knowing what my students did or did not understand about the material I had been teaching them.  Because I was a writing teacher, these assessments came in the form of written papers–essays that allowed me to observe how well my students executed tasks such as presenting a clear argument, incorporating textual support for that argument, analyzing ideas, and presenting those ideas using vocabulary syntax appropriate for a college-level audience.

In this regard, my assessments were not standardized; but my students were placed in my class via a standardized test–either the SAT (which the university uses to determine whether or not a student can enroll directly in Freshman Composition) or the EPT (which a student will take if her SAT score alone is not high enough for her to enroll in Freshman Comp.  The EPT score determines what level of remediation–if any–such a student requires).

I did not usually look at the EPT scores until the semester was underway because I had my own assessment (as do all teachers in my department at State) that I assigned at the beginning of class to understand what each student already seemed to know or not know about writing an effective essay.  At the end of the course I had to look at each student’s EPT score because I had to fill out a form on which I indicated my feelings about each student’s placement in my class, documenting whether or not I felt the student had been placed in the appropriate level.  Nearly always, I felt the placement was spot-on–that the student had been placed in the appropriate class for his or her given skill set and academic maturity.

So I think standardized tests can tell us some things about what students understand, and I think value-added analysis can be one way in which we consider a teacher’s effectiveness.  The teachers union, however, is largely opposed to such a method because they believe it has not been proven to be an accurate way of ranking–or even understanding–teacher ability.

That’s fine.  And in fact, I might agree fully if I heard the union presenting their own plan for a comprehensive, detailed system of evaluation to determine how well a teacher is doing in the task of ensuring that her students are learning what they need to learn while in her care.  But I don’t hear that–all I hear is opposition to value-added analysis.  Without presenting an alternate plan, the union does all teachers harm by standing as the collective voice of the profession, making the professionals in the field look as though they are resistant to change and unwilling to look critically at their own practices to determine where change is needed.

Meanwhile, it is ironic to hear so many teachers deride standardizing testing, when many of the same people who do so perpetuate their own form of standardized assessment by continuing to insist that students–particularly in high school–write five paragraph essays, papers that adhere to a standardized formula that the student will have to unlearn once he or she begins writing papers for college.  In fact, the five paragraph essay is the darling of nearly every high school I’ve worked in or visited (and certainly is the formula nearly all of my incoming freshmen at SF State were familiar with).  And why is it so popular?  It’s popular because the five paragraph essay is incredibly easy to grade, being that it relies on a formula rather than on the very messy work of forming complex ideas into something that readers can readily understand.  We can’t necessarily blame high school teachers for relying on this formula, however, given that the system in which they work is often not conducive to teaching much more complex–and realistic–forms of “real world” writing.  But that is another subject altogether, one I will have to write about at another time.

Getting back to the Times: As I noted earlier, the other source of reader outrage in reaction to “Who’s teaching L.A.’s kids?” is the impending release of the database compiled by the Times in which each of the district’s teachers will be ranked according to their “effectiveness” as determined by the value-added analysis.  I have mixed feelings about the release of this information.  On the one hand, I understand why teachers who feel the analysis is not a fair means of assessing their true abilities as educators would be extremely concerned about having this information available publicly.  On the other hand, I can see how parents–who often know very little about how good a job a teacher is doing–might feel entitled to the information.

In my own work as an instructor at State, student evaluations are part of the means by which instructors are evaluated.  Some of my colleagues are not fans of the student evaluation process and feel that students are not always the best evaluators of their instructors. (This is particularly true in the case of students who do not attend class regularly; it’s hard to evaluate the whole of something when in truth you’ve only experienced part of it.)  In the days before the Internet–in other words, when I was a student–these evaluations were seen by a limited number of people.  But now, thanks to Rate My Professors and RateMyTeachers, instructors at all levels are being publicly reviewed by students whether they like it or not.  Yes, you can go to RateMyProfessor and see what my students have said about me (well, the ones who have bothered to leave a review, anyway), just as you could do so for your child’s high school English teacher or that math teacher you had in middle school who is somehow still teaching.  Some of these reviews may be accurate, and some may be dead wrong, but they are all out there, regardless.

My point is this: If year after year a teacher cannot raise her students’ test scores (and, in the case of teachers profiled in the Times article, actually lowers students’ scores consistently), there is probably something we need to look at.  By the same token, if someone consistently has students whose performance seems to skyrocket under her care, we should be looking at what she’s doing.  As it stands right now, though, in many schools throughout California, very few discussions occur about either ends of this spectrum.  I’ve attended my share of “professional development” days in various districts, and not once did I see on offer a workshop with the school’s “top teachers.”  Nor have I seen many obviously failing teachers held accountable for their ineffectiveness.  Meanwhile, year after year I had students enter my classroom at State truly unprepared for the work ahead.  I can’t tell you how many times my students would tell me, “I never got feedback on my work in high school,” or “We mostly watched movies in my English class,” or “We didn’t write a lot of papers in my school.”  And I believed them, because I had seen the same things happen in the high schools I had worked in before.

So if nothing else, the Times series has people talking about education, in ways they haven’t been talking before.  My hope is that teachers will get together to establish a comprehensive method of evaluation that will not only allow them to understand what they are doing well and where they need to improve, but also how to share that information with one another, so that “star teachers” can serve as mentors and models to those who are struggling to help students master the material.  If the union came out saying, “Yes–we want very much to make sure that ineffective teachers who don’t improve are let go and excellent teachers are retained, and here are the methods by which we are going to ensure those things happen,” people would be receptive to that, and we could all begin the work of ensuring that our students leave our school system prepared for whatever they may want to pursue next in their lives.  Such work will be labor intensive, time-consuming, and probably even chaotic at first; but that’s how evolution is.

Whether this evolution will be informed by “value-added analysis” or some other means that we deem more accurate really doesn’t matter–what matters is that we start experimenting now to figure out what we need to change and how we need to do it.  Those who continue to say, “We can’t use this method,” or “That reform won’t work,” without offering ideas about what could be effective are the biggest impediment to progress in education.  If we allow them to dominate the conversation, we are essentially throwing up our hands and giving in to the idea that it’s just too difficult to change things we’ve been doing for years.  And anyone who accepts that point-of-view must also be fine with accepting the fact that fewer than half our graduating seniors are proficient in some of the most essential skills needed in life–the ability to read, write, and think critically.

As for me, I’m not really okay with that.  But then–I’m a “no b.s.” kind of gal.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
This entry was posted in Getting Schooled and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Schooled by the L.A. Times: The good, the bad, and the ugly of ‘Who’s teaching L.A.’s Kids?’

  1. Shane says:

    Well put. It is frustrating to see incompetent teachers slide by with no repercussions, but I do agree that simply judging effectiveness with test scores isn’t enough. I’d say a combination of observation, portfolio of assignments/student work, and, when appropriate, test scores is better.

  2. Pingback: Waiting for Superman « Verbal Cupcake

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