Saturday, August 21, 2010

GOOD GRADES: Teachers must be held accountable for students' success - and failure


8/20/2010 -- WE'VE all had those teachers who we remember fondly. They inspired us to dream big and gave us the confidence and skills to accomplish those dreams. Or their talent was merely explaining complicated concepts in easy-to-understand ways. Or they set high expectations that forced us to take on challenges - and succeed.

Many also remember, though not fondly, other teachers. The one whose inability to explain even simple topics befuddled otherwise bright students. The one who belittled or mocked students, thus destroying their confidence. Or the teacher who just didn't care, and let his classes run wild and, consequently, the students learned nothing.

For the most part, the latter group of teachers are the exception. Yet, there's virtually no way for students and their parents to recognize these teachers except in retrospect - after they irrevocably changed the course of students' lives, for better or worse.

But that's changing, and public education will be the better for it.

The publication of a controversial "value-added" analysis of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District this week by the Los Angeles Times has brought the issue of teacher accountability to the forefront. The ensuing debate has focused on the methodology of the study and the ethics of linking teachers publicly to the achievement of their students. But all the concerns that critics can think up can't diminish the fundamental truth: Teachers must bear some sort of accountability for the success of students. Otherwise, what's the point of requiring such extensive training for the educators of our children?

Fortunately, the push toward accountability seems inevitable. After the Times' series was published, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the face of President Obama's Race to the Top initiative, endorsed the idea of releasing data about how the students of teachers are performing. And California's education secretary said she will encourage districts to use student performance to evaluate teachers.

Identifying and helping teachers is an important step toward improving education in L.A. and the country, but it's not enough. Currently, it's virtually impossible for the district to get rid of a teacher. What's the use of identifying a consistently failing teacher if there's no recourse?

This isn't a criticism of teachers or the profession, though you wouldn't know that from the combative response to the story from United Teachers Los Angeles. We think that teachers care about their own performance and want to know if their students are lagging; it's not like they got into the business for fame or fortune.

On a happier note, LAUSD officials, teachers, students and parents got some good news this week: State test scores showed strong gains several core skills. This hopeful upward trend is evidence that the myriad of local reform efforts of recent years are starting to pay off. But school officials can't stop now. Embracing new reforms, such as releasing data about the scores of each teacher's students and legislation that will make it easier to fire ineffective teachers, is the obvious next step.

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