Sunday, September 19, 2010


Steve Zimmer

by Steve Zimmer - Member, LAUSD Board of Education in The Huffington Post |

●●smf notes: Zimmer is probably the most thoughtful member of the LAUSD Board – and perhaps the most anguished. He went from counselor and classroom teacher directly to the board of ed – without passing ‘Go’.   Steve cannot help but wear his teacher’s heart on his sleeve. This article missed 4LAKids notice when first it was published  …but truth is truth and bears well the test of time.

August 24, 2010 09:33 PM  -- The Los Angeles Times has been running a weekly series that I consider a vicious attack on the integrity of the teaching profession. The reporters have singled out individual Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, identified them by name and, using several year’s worth of records and a statistical method known as value-added analysis, judged those teachers ineffective or effective by whether the math and English test scores in their classrooms had risen or dropped over time.

As a career teacher and counselor now serving as a member of the LA Board of Education as well as a strong supporter of the LAUSD Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, I feel compelled to respond.

The LA Times writers christen the value-added evaluation approach as the determinate factor in measuring a teacher's effectiveness. Without apology, they reduce children's lives to the score on their standardized tests. Without any evident thought to the consequences, they restrict the definition of a teacher's purpose to raising those test scores. The article suggests that if LAUSD just had the "will" to fire our teachers based on these "facts" our children would learn and their dreams would come true.

The Times story uses the word 'objective' to describe evaluation by this one mathematical measure. While a statistical analysis may appear objective, the way it is used can be anything but objective. If a value-added measure is used by principals along with other tools to improve a teacher's performance, it can in fact 'add value' to the process. If the same measure is used to discredit the teaching profession and generate mistrust from parents, it subtracts value. This is the reason why the use of this measure is one of the most controversial and hotly contested notions in American education today and why the National Academy of Sciences recommends more study is needed before this approach gets wider application and certainly before it becomes a factor in high stakes decisions.

The initial Times article itself gave over four paragraphs to caveats about the reliability of the method, then moved on to enshrine value-added as the sole standard parents should embrace to determine if their child's teacher is effective.

Magnifying and elevating one aspect of teacher performance may grab headlines, but it will not change children's lives for the better. Consider the destabilizing effect on our classrooms as teachers compete for the students who have done well on standardized tests. Instructional time will be lost as teachers are forced to teach not only to the test but also to test-taking strategies. There will be intense pressure on principals from parents to get their children with the 'right' teacher. There is also the potential for protest and outrage if a child is placed with a teacher the Times deems "ineffective." The impact of value-added competition on the culture and dynamic of schools will be immediate and cataclysmic. And once again, it is those who are most vulnerable who stand to lose the most.

To be clear--in criticizing the story I am not trying to dismiss underperformance. I support the rigorous evaluation of teachers. As a teacher, I know how important it is for every teacher at a school site to be effective. But I also know how crucial it is for struggling teachers to receive the necessary interventions and guidance to achieve excellence. We must evaluate teachers, but we cannot separate that evaluation from teacher training, teacher professional development and teacher support. The goal and mission of the LAUSD's Teacher Effectiveness Task Force is to address the holistic challenge of ensuring there is an excellent teacher in every classroom.

There is broad consensus amongst public education experts that multiple measures must be used to achieve a comprehensive evaluation that is meaningful for teachers, students and their families. Valid evidence of instructional effectiveness such as portfolios, student performance on periodic and authentic assessments and parent/student surveys could be included in this evaluation. The criteria for all measurements must be clear. Standardized test score data might have a place among these measurements, but it must be a component of the evaluation, not the grade itself.

Once this comprehensive evaluation is implemented, every LAUSD employee must be accountable to it. When we are comprehensive in our evaluation, analysis and accountability we validate the inherent worth of every child that enters the LAUSD school house door.

The most insidious and reckless part of the Times story can be found in the final section entitled "Parental Trust." The Times' argument here: if you are a parent and you trust your teachers and your school you are naïve, you are ignorant and you are hurting your child. The message is damning and it is clear. The editor's decision to highlight the positive quote by parent Maura Merino about her son's teachers was juxtaposed with a line beneath it that said her son's teacher was in fact ineffective. The Times seeks to explode the bonds of trust painstakingly built in schools across the city and to challenge the esteem teachers hold in many communities.

The message is that if you do trust your teachers, if you do believe in them, you are risking nothing less than your American Dream. Every struggle, every risk you have ever undertaken is now in jeopardy because the teacher you love may not be raising your child's score on standardized tests. The Times argument suggests that test scores are not only more important than any other measure of a child's worth, but the very quantification of the success or failure of a family's American Dream.

Most parents I talk to may have legitimate issues with our public education system but hold their local teachers in high regard. I agree wholeheartedly that families must be informed and empowered in a different, transformative ways. But we don't have to turn parents against teachers to get there. Genuine parent engagement involves equal partners working together towards the singular goal of student achievement. This can only happen when families are approached as the experts and the ultimate decision-makers about their child's education. In these turbulent economic times, the school site is often the most stable place in a community for students and their families. Our focus must be on strengthening that school community, not turning stakeholders upon one another.

What makes a public school a public school is that we serve every child who enters the school house door without prejudice. Once we start down the slippery slope of sizing up each child's potential value as they cross those gates, we will have reversed the gains of a different generation of children who faced down the angry mobs to ensure that our public school system would offer promise for all children. We all lose when children are viewed through a prism of their capacity to score instead of their capacity to learn, grow, delight, share, love and contribute.

Every year I taught I learned far more from my students than I could ever have dreamed to be able to teach them. That value, added to me in way that cannot be measured, is the central joy of teaching and learning. It is why we teach. It is why we are all teachers. No test and no evaluation can ever judge what my students have given me. And fighting against the attempts to take joy and love out of this sacred profession is the only way I can imagine to pay that gift forward.

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