The Los Angeles Times takes on the two L.A. sacred cows—teachers and unions—and lives to print again!

Media criticism.
Aug. 31 2010 5:44 PM

The L.A. Times Flunks L.A. Schoolteachers

The newspaper takes on the two L.A. sacred cows—teachers and unions—and lives to print again!

School. Click image to expand.
The L.A. Times' daring series is a service to students and parents

Nobody but a schoolteacher or a union acolyte could criticize the Los Angeles Times' terrific package of stories—complete with searchable database—about teacher performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Union leader A.J. Duffy of the United Teachers Los Angeles stupidly called for a boycott of the Times. Boycotts can be sensible things, but threatening to boycott a newspaper is like threatening to throw it into a briar patch. Hell, Duffy might as well have volunteered to sell Times subscriptions, door-to-door, as to threaten a boycott. Doesn't he understand that the UTLA has no constituency outside its own members and lip service from members of other Los Angeles unions? Even they know the UTLA stands between them and a good education for their children. 

Duffy further grouched that the Times was "leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test." [Ellipsis in the original.] Gee, Mr. Duffy, aren't students judged by test results?

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten also knocked the Times for publishing the database that measures the performance of 6,000 elementary-school teachers. Weingarten went on to denounce the database as "incomplete data masked as comprehensive evaluations." Of course, had the Times analysis flattered teachers, Weingarten would be praising the results of the analysis.

Teachers' union lobbyist Joe Nunez attempted damage control of his own when he told a Times columnist that the newspaper was "completely misusing the test data." The tests were supposed to be just a "dipstick" measurement of schools, Nunez said. But isn't a dipstick a useful gauge of an engine's well-being? Wouldn't a dipstick be a good indicator of a school's health?

Duffy's, Weingarten's, and Nunez's protests, however inane, were almost completely nullified by the sensible Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, who endorsed the Times series. "What is there to hide?" Duncan said. Well, plenty. But the schools and the unions have no right to hide it. Under the California Public Records Act, the public is free to inspect such data and manipulate them in any fashion it desires. The Times dared to put a human face on the failure of Los Angeles schools by profiling by name both teachers who scored high and who scored low in the newspaper's analysis.

The Times has done its readers a great service by exposing Duffy, Weingarten, and Nunez as enemies of open inquiry, vigorous debate, critical thinking, and holding authority accountable—essentially the cognitive arts that students are supposed to be taught in schools. That Duffy, Weingarten, and Nunez don't bother to mount a serious defense of Los Angeles teachers indicates they have no case. Their only job—and they know it—is to protect the jobs of the members of their unions.

The Times findings, which took bravery to express in liberal, union-enslaved Los Angeles, are hardly incendiary. The paper found that effective teachers "often go unrecognized"; that the school district does not act on the information it's gathered to fire ineffective teachers because it basically fears the union; that the best teachers are scattered throughout the system, not concentrated in the rich neighborhoods or the "best schools"; that parents are denied "access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets"; that seniority determines pay and job protection; and so on. 

These conclusions are so sensible, so obvious, so intuitive that only a union official or education bureaucrat could possibly dispute them. Oh, the Economic Policy Institute took its shot, calling teacher assessment based on standardized-test results just "one piece of information" used in a "comprehensive evaluation."

By doing something LAUSD should have done in the first place, the Times had shamed the cowardly school district into performing its own "value-added analysis" of the data. So far, so good. But what does the school district intend to do with these scores? Release them to the public? No. It's going to dispense them confidentially to teachers in the fall. For all the good that will do parents and teachers, why doesn't the school district play ostrich and dig a big hole in Playa del Rey and bury the scores?

Let's hope the Times stays on this story—and that it or some other publication uses the California Public Records Act to publish these new, LAUSD-generated scores. If you can't grade the graders, whom can you grade?

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I loved the Times' FAQ, which lays out the strengths and weaknesses of value-added analysis and explains how the data were acquired and analyzed. Someday I'll write an FAQ for this column. What should it say? Send suggestions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. At my Twitter feed I dispense only A+ material. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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