Sunday, August 15, 2010

Value-added teaching

If you have followed my posts about education, you know that I am ambivalent about both private and public schools and that I am deeply cynical about standardized testing.

Bad Dad and I have always believed that how much a student progresses in a school year, rather than a raw test score, is the best indicator of teacher effectiveness.  After all, students have different abilities and come from different environments.  

The LA Times started a multi-part series about teacher effectiveness, working up the data the way we've always wanted to see it.
Seeking to shed light on the problem, The Times obtained seven years of math and English test scores from the Los Angeles Unified School District and used the information to estimate the effectiveness of L.A. teachers — something the district could do but has not.

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.
The findings of the study confirmed two of my pet beliefs.
• Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas. Rather, these teachers were scattered throughout the district. The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools.

• Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students' academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.
The researchers are also careful to bring up the caveat that a multi-year analysis is required in order to rate teacher effectiveness.  Every teacher has good and bad years.  Over a long period, the most effective teachers will stand out.

This brings up an ethical quandry; if the effective teachers are known, won't all the savvy parents request them? Someone has to end up in the classroom with non-effective teachers. Who gets to decide?

I've been the pushy parent that requested specific teachers.  I don't know if it made any difference, but I got my preference the majority of the time.  My daughter had only one ineffective teacher, and that was at a private school.  (That specific teacher had a bad year and had been a good teacher in the past.)

How do I know if I picked the right teachers?  I don't know and I can't go back and run a control.  ;-)

In a couple of instances, I asked for the less popular teacher.  They were known to be more strict, but I wanted a teacher that had both good classroom control, and was sympathetic to the unique challenges my child faced.

Another time, I just clicked with one teacher because she majored in the arts and worked in the arts before becoming a mother and teacher.  Although her academic training was in the arts, she is very interested in the sciences and developed much of the school's science curriculum.  I am just the opposite.  Although I studied and work in the sciences, I have always been very interested in the arts. 

My gut instinct told me that she would be very flexible about my child's schoolwork, despite the reputation for strictness.  It turned out that I was correct; my child was assigned a highly individualized curriculum that followed the state standards, but in greater depth.  It involved more legwork for me, but it was so much easier than schlepping her to a private school 5 days a week and then working extra hours so we could afford it.

Anyway, if you are worried, leave a comment and I will try to address it in a future post about how to make public school work for you and your child.  I may elicit suggestions from experienced teachers, too.

The LA Times study is important.   Go read it.


  1. Interesting post. I'll have to go read the LA Times article when I have time....

    As you know, we're a few years away from having to deal with this. It scares me a bit, but I also haven't seen any evidence yet that my daughter is going to have any special needs. I think she's smart, but just your run of the mill smart, you know? I guess time will tell. We're leaning towards trying to get her into the Spanish immersion magnet school here, mostly because it is in our neighborhood. But also because we think it would be good for her to learn another language, and she's certainly enjoying the Chinese lessons we're doing with her now. I feel like we can supplement her core subjects at home, if that becomes necessary. I'm a scientist, my husband is an engineer. I have a strong interest in history and literature. But we're both monoglots, so this would be her best chance to become truly bilingual.

    Of course, there is no guarantee we'd get her into that school. And we haven't even gone to visit it yet, so we might end up not liking it. I guess what I really want out of school is that it not crush her love of learning, and that it does an acceptable job of teaching her the basics- i.e., I don't mind adding enrichment, but I don't want to feel like I need to do the basics.

  2. To the extent standardized tests are useful at all in determining a teacher's (or a school's) effectiveness, it obviously appears in how much a student progresses in a year, not the absolute level of a student at the end of a year. You're so right about this, Grace. Yet, at least here in Colorado, schools and teachers are punished if their students don't reach a certain standard by year's end. You could have a very shi-shi middle school in which children come in the 95th percentil and leave in the 90th percentile, and everyone is very impressed with the quality of the teacher and the principal. Or, you can have a mostly immigrant-population school in which the students come in in the 5th percentiule and leave in the 20th percentile, and everyone castigates the staff for running a "failed" school. Obviously, under the latter system, the way to "improve" a school is to chase away the kids from the poorest famlies. That's not the incentive system we should be encouraging in our school districts. Private schools already exist to fill that particular function, thank you very much.


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