Further Proof that Teachers Matter

Last week I endorsed the use of data to identify ineffective teachers and—THIS IS IMPORTANT—the administrators who have known the identity of the underperforming teachers and have not acted.  That set off a firestorm, which I take to be indicative of the issue’s importance.

Credit: Sally Ryan / The Chicago News Cooperative

The LA teachers union is outraged, but according to reports it is also now being pressured by the school district and by AFT president Randi Weingarten (!) to reconsider. Here’s part of what the Los Angeles Times reported:

The Los Angeles Unified School District will ask labor unions to adopt a new approach to teacher evaluations that would judge instructors partly by their ability to raise students’ test scores — a sudden and fundamental change in how the nation’s second-largest district assesses its educators.

The teachers union has for years staunchly resisted using student test data in instructors’ reviews.

The Times also reports that LAUSD has had this information for years but has not acted because of inertia and fear of the union. I disagree: I think it goes back to the system’s willingness to tolerate mediocrity.

A number of respondents to last week’s post attacked my reasoning. Knowing that I am an opponent of simple bubble tests and have spoken out on the importance of multiple measures, they wondered how I could get behind a system that was using so-called ‘value added’ data and nothing else.

I cop to the charge of inconsistency and defend myself thusly: nothing else was happening! It took the press to move the system off the dime, where all the adults have been complacently sitting while students fail to learn.

The approach has major bugs, but, with all its faults, it’s a damn sight better than doing nothing about lousy teaching and cowardly administrators.

As one commenter, Peter, wrote: “If the temperature gauge in my car moves toward ‘H’ it does not mean necessarily that my engine will seize imminently; maybe my coolant is low or needs replacing. Data is a window we use to help see what’s really happening. If my value-added numbers moved in an adverse direction the next step is to discern why. Is it my instruction? Classroom management? Assessment? If this data’s been readily available and teachers need a newspaper article to find it we have a communication breakdown, which ultimately is a leadership breakdown.”

Amen to what Peter has written.  To continue his metaphor, the warning light been on in too many engines for too long. In my original post and in subsequent comments, I said that administrators have to be called out as well. And if union contracts stand in the way of helping or removing ineffective teachers, then the union–and the school board–that negotiated the contract ought to be called out as well.

The old system in which the principal visits the classroom a few times a year (often announced in advance) is dying.  What is going to replace it is the question.  School administrators might want bubble test scores, or maybe they’d like to be able to rate teachers subjectively.  Both of those present real problems, and so I think that the two teacher unions need to move beyond their trade union role and become professional unions, working to help teachers get better and also to remove those who can’t cut it.

Michelle Rhee’s new IMPACT system is already controversial, but it’s an improvement on a system that ends up giving 95% or more of teachers a rating of satisfactory or better, especially when not even 25% of students are scoring a a proficient level.  One young DC teacher who has been through IMPACT said there are advantages to NOT knowing when you are going to be observed: “Every day I had to make sure that my objective was clear, that my kids knew it.  Not just the days I got observed.  And I think that made my classroom a little bit more consistent, and they learned a little bit more this year than last year.”

His endorsement was qualified, however.  “My only issue was that it’s marketed as a growth tool for teachers, and there wasn’t as much resources to help that growth as I would have liked to see.”

And that’s the key issue. Because of the District of Columbia’s unique situation, Rhee was able to impose her system; she did not have to negotiate it. Suppose she’d had to negotiate? Is there a union in the nation that would negotiate a system that provided equally for growth and for removal of ineffective teachers?  (Rhee’s system allows for immediate dismissal of teachers rated ‘ineffective’ in a complex rating system involving five separate evaluations, including two by ‘master educators’ hired by Rhee, and student performance.)

Education Secretary Duncan continues to support publication of data. As the Boston Globe just reported, “U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged schools across the country on Wednesday to disclose more data on student achievement and teacher effectiveness, saying too much information that would help teachers and parents is being kept out of public view. Duncan said schools too often aren’t disclosing years of data on student achievement that could not only help parents measure a teacher’s effectiveness, but also would help teachers gain better feedback. “Too often our systems keep all of our teachers in the dark about the quality of their own work,” Duncan told an audience at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock. “In other fields, we talk about success constantly, with statistics and other measures to prove it. Why, in education, are we scared to talk about what success looks like?”

That’s the challenge: DEFINING SUCCESS.  It can’t be just test scores, but it has to be real–and failure has to have consequences.

60 thoughts on “Further Proof that Teachers Matter

  1. “I endorsed the use of data to identify ineffective teachers”

    —–>That’s precisely the problem. This data did not necessarily identify ineffective teachers!

    “That’s the challenge: DEFINING SUCCESS. It can’t be just test scores, but it has to be real”

    ——>But you have already concluded that the VAM scores *can* identify ineffective teachers.

    Sorry, but contradictions remain. Your second post on this issue, however, clarifies for me the extent of your unbridled enthusiasm for VAM. That comes across clearly. And by the way, it doesn’t matter what big names endorse this; Presidents have endorsed slavery, but that did not make them right either.


    • Re: Using data to evaluate teachers. Student scores on “objective tests” show only a part of the picture for a successful teacher. Other indicators of successful teaching hare hard to quantify, but they are no less important. How do we measure the success of a teacher who does the following?

      Persuades a potential dropout to stay in school.

      Challenges students to read and think critically.

      Works to tutor students after school.

      Shows how content relates to students’ lives.

      Spends class time in sustained silent reading.

      Encourages students to find outside of school elements of the concepts they are learning in school so they can clearly see the relevance.

      Captures teachable moments that may relate only tangentially to the objective of a given lesson but can capture the students’ attention and encourage them to think!. For example, when one of my high school classes was reading a science fiction story on time travel, someone asked how I would define the word “time.” The discussion involving our attempts to define that term took the rest of the period. Were we “off task”? Perhaps. The definition of “time” was not on any standardized test. But that discussion taut us all how difficult it can be to define what seems on the surface to be such an “easy” word.

      Gives students choices on how they want to show that they have mastered the content. Students may choose to take an objective test, write a paper, join with classmates to enact a scene, give a speech explaining key concepts, draw a complex concept map to show relationships among concepts. Such approaches to authentic assessment address students’ learning styles and multiple intelligences.

      Success in these areas does not always show up on “objective tests,” but they are no less valid. They give students a choice about how they want to demonstrate their knowledge and skill; any one who has read the research on student motivation has found that choice can be a strong motivator.

      Unfortunately, teachers feel enormous pressure to help students succeed on “objective” tests,” the development of which did not involve the teacher, the content of which may privilege concepts that the teacher views as less important than other concepts that are left off the test, and the design of which encourages lower level thinking. This pressure prompts them to teach to the test and neglect the more critical, creative, and appealing methods of teaching that capture students’ attention and show them that learning can, indeed, be an enjoyable journey.

      Instead of relying so heavily on standardized tests to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness, the powers-that-be would do well to take a look at the Career Ladder plan that was developed in Tennessee under the leadership of then Governor Lamar Alexander (now a U.S. senator from that state). That program was based on a year long evaluation program wherein teachers prepared a portfolio, took what then was called the National Teachers Exam, and was observed by a teacher in his or her field that did not live in the community. Now that approach was the most realistic program of teacher evaluation I have ever seen!

      Also, educators may want to give strong consideration to using student exhibitions, advocated by The Coalistion of Essential Schools, wherein students’ exit evaluation involves showing and explaining to a panal of teachers an exhibition containing evidence of what they have learned throughout their four years in high school.

      Teaching and learning are too complex, too vibrant, too rich to be wadded up into a standardized test given on a single day to students all over the country!

      Suellen Alfred


    • I do not have ‘unbridled enthusiasm’ for VAM. What I am enthusiastic about is finally coming to grips with teachers who are persistently ineffective, perhaps because they have stopped caring, perhaps because they didn’t belong in the classroom in the first place, perhaps because their administrators played ‘sink or swim’ with them.
      Like the rest of us, teachers want reliable information about restaurants, auto repair shops, hospitals, doctors and so on, but they resist efforts to rate/evaluate their effectiveness.
      Is that reasonable?


      • I couldn’t agree more with the need to identify effective and ineffective teachers, and to try to give support to those who need help and also to lay off ineffective teachers. I agree also with a lot of the points made about having a more complete measure that takes into account many of the teachers’ innovations and interactions with students to motivae them. But we have to start somewhere, since inertia and tolerance of mediocrity is hampering our students’ learning.

        One small example: in Santa Clara County, we served 1,000 students of low income backgrounds who were below grade level in an intensive summer intervention program using the teachers from local districts. We found, even with selected teachers, the difference in learning from an effective teacher to an ineffective teacher was 2-3 x over a four-week program! Even with the same professional development, the same curriculum and the same teacher collaboration meetings, there was a huge difference in student performance as measured by pre and post tests. And, by the way, our past data shows that student motivation is highly correlated with student score gains. So, teachers do make a huge difference. And we had extremely successful teachers with 15 years experience and 1 year experience in the classroom– it was not years teaching, but other qualities that made the difference.

        Kathryn Hanson


      • It all depends on what you test, how you test & how you interpret the data. A teacher that teaches kids how to take a test is not an effective teacher.


      • What teacher that you know has the power to resist an evaluation? Teachers are evaluated every other year at minimum. What has led you to conclude that teachers do not want to be a part of a better, more authentic evaluation system?

        If teachers logically, intellectually, and rationally see the flaws in VAM and say so, it does not mean they are “resisting efforts to rate/evaluate their effectiveness.” it means that VAM cheapens the evaluation process by boiling teacher quality to a single measure, one easy to manipulate at that. It moves us in the wrong direction.

        I hate to break it to you, but while VAM may force some ineffective and unmotivated teachers out of the profession due to sheer laziness, it will not catch perhaps the even more disturbing cases of ineffective teachers. In a system where teachers are alone in their classroom, monitoring themselves during state testing, it is the most unethical of teachers who will take advantage of this system to ensure they look like superstars. I could write on and on but you can’t see what you don’t want to see.


  2. The press (you) are not talking about the causes of what amounts to a symptom–failing schools are a symptom of an underlying disease called poverty.

    You can advocate all the school-side reform you can think of, and it won’t do a thing because the factors that cause student failure don’t exist at school, they exist at home.

    You want extraordinary teachers, but you must realize that at 34K to start, you get what you pay for.

    America wants schools to raise their kids for next to nothing. That won’t work. And shaming and blaming won’t work either.

    Actual concern for these kids, and policies that could actually help them are non-existent. Think universal health care, free early childhood education, better jobs, better housing, better services, music, art, field trips, spontaneity, recess, and teachers who care about children, not test scores.

    The media have a responsibility to discuss the truth.

    You failed.


    • This strikes me a classic example of the best being the enemy of the good. Those poverty-stricken parents who don’t have adequate health care are sending you their best kids, and they are expecting you to teach them. They’re not keeping the best ones at home. Teachers make a difference in children’s lives. To be blunt, I think people who throw up their hands and say they can’t do anything (or anything much) because of the attendant social issues and problems that exist outside the school ought to find other work.


  3. Really, John? Doing something is automatically better than doing nothing? (I’m not advocating for “nothing”). Even if there’s no evidence that it will work and ample evidence that it will fail? I suppose you would tell an ill-person in a lousy hospital to just go ahead and just take something if the slow or overwhelmed medical staff hadn’t prescribed anything yet.

    You of all people should know how complex schools are, and how different. You’ve been in more schools in more places than most of us in this conversation. VAM for teacher evaluation simply cannot account for the variable affecting the data, and even if it could, those variable would either need to be held constant, or assumed to be equal for all teachers.

    You still haven’t taken on the strongest evidence/opinions against your position (and that of the LA Times, and various would-be ed reformers). See, it’s not just me saying this. How do you answer the National Academies, the Ntl. Council on Measurement in Education, American Psychology Association, American Education Research Association, and studies that consistently show how unreliable this approach is? Stop dabbling in metaphors about engine lights and maintenance (and feel free to bypass my medical metaphor) – and cut to the chase: tell us why all of those professional bodies and their members are wrong, while you and the L.A. Times (and Rhee, Duncan, etc.) are correct.


    • I agree with David. Doing something is better than nothing is a lame response and does not attend to why there is a “firestorm” of responses against VAM. Do we judge doctors if they make the wrong diagnosis – or worse if the patient dies? Gawande and other doctors have written convincingly about doctor learning and often how hit and miss it is. Teaching is a very demanding job and even the greatest of teachers would object to: being judged by a standardized test and having their name in the local newspaper when their students fail their class. I just got back from Finland and told them about the L.A. Times article. The teacher educators, teachers and principals said: “This will NEVER happen here.” They said this because they believe in “enhancement” – always supporting teachers to improve, to cooperate with their peers; and work together to have a healthy, open school climate. This is not about doing something – rather than nothing. It is about embracing a positive, rather than negative view of teachers and providing ways for teachers to learn and continue to get better. Naming, shaming and blaming teachers is a strategy for making teaching untenable, while supporting, providing, and encouraging ways to grow, learn and improve will in the short and long run help schools, teachers and students improve. Don’t jump on the bandwagon just because it is happening in a few places. Think hard about what you would do as a teacher with over 120 students a day – every day in secondary school or teaching 30 plus students over 8-10 subjects in elementary school.


      • I have sympathy (and, I hope, empathy) for those teachers who struggle in the ways you describe. I am writing about those who aren’t cutting it, for whatever reasons. They have to be moved out if they cannot be helped. I think the onus is on administrators, but I would like to see union leaders stepping up here as well to help move bad teachers out. I have seen too many over the years, and (I sound like a broken record) the kids don’t get a do-over. We can get a second medical opinion, hire a new attorney, appeal a judge’s decision, but that 5th grader is a 5th grader only once.


      • I will say again – while bad teachers are terrible, they’re a red herring. They are part of the problem, but NOT the main reason for the failures of public education in contemporary America.


    • If you were in a hospital and not getting better, you’d demand the doctor be changed (analogous to John’s argument) or demanding to go to another hospital (analogous to NCLB options for failing schools). So bad analogy! John is NOT arguing for naming or worse because of one test! He’s suggesting that – because of the lack of improvement in progress, the teachers (LIKELY – my caution consistent with my previous contributions to John’s blog) have been ignored previously for action. IF the evidence is there, I agree with John.



    • David,
      Let’s move beyond VAM and address the real issue: an evaluation system that gives 95-97% of teachers ratings of satisfactory or better while 10-30% of their students are testing at a proficient level. Do you trust NAEP?
      Or as I write in Below C Level, it’s our high tolerance for mediocrity that is dragging us down. I admire teachers and would love to see their organizations take the lead on this. But something has to be done….I believe the future of our democracy and our economy are at stake here.


      • Okay, moving beyond VAM, of course I agree we need to improve evaluations and have teachers take the lead. That’s why I participated in the research and writing of an evaluation reform report (linked through my blog, which is linked to my name above this comment).

        I will defer any discussion of NAEP until you, or anyone else in this debate, can tell me how, time after time, you sidestep the fact that APA, AERA, NCME, the National Academies, and the Economics Policy Institute have all considered this issue, and all reached the same conclusion.

        You cannot take a test (including NAEP) that is validated for one purpose and use it for another purpose, just because in your mind and in the popular conception of teaching and learning, it makes sense.

        One of the most curious findings is that if you run the data “backwards” you’ll find that future teachers add value to current test scores. If VAM were as pure and useful an approach as suggested, the data wouldn’t work that way – you’d expect to see no useful results. Since there appears to be this ghostly-future effect, the conclusion to be drawn is that the data contain unseen biases and uncontrolled variables. Future matches of students and teachers are not sufficiently random. That’s just one of many, many problems, but certainly one of the most illuminating.

        The EPI report goes even further and warns of specific consequences of that approach. It’s worth a read.


  4. John,

    I came across this excerpt from your book in a review of it online.

    “Cheap, norm-referenced, multiple-choice, machine-scored tests invite the kind of skill-and-drill instruction that poor kids are subjected to. Because test prep works and scores can be improved, schools face irresistible pressures to focus heavily on the subject matter being tested, and to give short shrift to everything else. Cheap tests also drive out more nuanced assessment like teacher-made tests and individual assessments, which are much more expensive to implement.” (ibid.)

    Once again, it is difficult to understand that the person who wrote this excerpt could write the blog post you crafted last week, which was willing to brand teachers who work with students with low and stagnant scores as “ineffective” and guilty of “doing damage” to young people simply based on bubble test results. Moreover, your “nothing else was happening” excuse doesn’t explain your rather hysterical rhetoric in your previous blog post– suggesting everyone subscribe to the LA Times, positing that test scores are “the truth” and that teachers whose scores don’t go up enough be “called out” and humiliated.

    Other commenters mentioned Finland and poverty issues. Isn’t it interesting that Finland– a country with test scores that Arne Duncan would die for– has about a 2.5 poverty rate for children while the US rate is close to 20%– and much higher for blacks and Latinos, the two “racial” subsets who undoubtably will be most adversely impacted by the type of standardized test happy education reform you are now siding with simply because not much else is happening.

    I really think you have spent too much time with Arne Duncan, Michele Rhee, and Paul Vallas over the past few years. Their no-nonsense, tough talk, sweep ’em all out, there’s a new sheriff in town machismo and “I helped my mom tutor poor black kids” posturing must have warped your ability to think with nuance and sophistication.

    That said, I think there is hope for you yet as the excerpt I posted above and a few others I’ve read convinced me that I should check out your book and keep checking your blog.
    I know that in my last post I suggested you do a multi-piece series on critics of high stakes testing. I still think that would be a good idea. Maybe you should also do a multi-piece series of reports in which you talk to teachers who have been in the classroom for over a decade– particularly in school labelled as “Failing” by NCLB–to give the nation a better sense of what people in the trenches are hearing, seeing and feeling.



    • Ron, I urge you to go on our website and look at our coverage of NCLB, particularly the three part series we did for the NewsHour a couple of years ago. I think we nailed it, frankly.
      And I stand by what I wrote in my book, but change is coming, and teachers are going to be evaluated by the performance of their students. Deal with it, preferably by being pro-active and fighting hard for multiple measures.
      But there have to be consequences for not producing, because kids don’t get a do-over of the year or years that they have ineffective teachers.


  5. By this time next week there will be what is effectively a policy a statement on this issue by a batch of people who actually know what they are talking about. Given who the people are, it should change the framing of the discussion. That it may not is more a commentary on the mindset of those locked into current paradigms of “reform” than it is on the merits of what will be reported.

    Stay tuned.

    And no, I am not one of the people involved in putting it together. I am merely a high school teacher who (a) actually understands what goes on in the classroom, and (b) who when he encounters a research report goes beyond the executive summary and the news reports, both of which sometimes are not accurate representations of the contents of the the study.


  6. I am shocked that a journalist like John Merrow who has championed good teachers and good teachers would support measuring both using standardized testing. As a teacher in Florida for the last ten years, I have observed how teachers, administrators and districts have become obsessed with our state wide test called the FCAT. Schools are graded and bonuses assigned as to how well students do well on the test. Not surprisingly success is highly correlated to the SED of the studfent body. To me, it is just another way of rewarding the haves and marginalizing the have nots. I have seen how money and time is sucked away from electives such as art and music (which are often great motivators and keep students in school) as well as vocational classes like shop and cooking to pour money into intensive math and intensive reading so that students will score well on the test. While students need math and reading skills, we need to broaded our vision to see if we are preparing students to pass a test whose content they will quickly forget rather than a rich full life as productive citizens of our society.


    • You wouldn’t use those scores? Just throw them out? Please…
      They should be PART of the evaluation, and that’s the challenge: developing a system that moves the ball forward, avoiding what you describe accurately as the obsession with scores and replacing it with a comprehensive system of multiple measures. I’d include teacher attendance, participation in school-related activities, availability for extra assistance, and so on. Those can get subjective, of course, but that has to be addressed and dealt with, not rejected.


      • “They should be PART of the evaluation, and that’s the challenge: developing a system that moves the ball forward, avoiding what you describe accurately as the obsession with scores and replacing it with a comprehensive system of multiple measures.”

        That is the key. Everyone can agree that state tests have flaws. Thus, they should not be the only indicator of teacher performance. But, they have to play a role in the evaluation. To ignore that data would be foolish.


  7. John,

    I’d be far more sympathetic to your argument if you hadn’t essentially waved away concerns about journalistic ethics on naming individual teachers and tying those names to fragile and questionable statistical measures. Again, here you claim you are addressing your critics without answering those questions.

    Many of us who would accept some form of evaluation using student outcomes still think the L.A. Times blew it, and your use of “well, nothing else was being done” is a lousy excuse for the Times’ behavior. Surely they could have written the series without identifying individual teachers and raised the same issues.

    So what is the added public value, to you, of naming an individual teacher and saying her test statistics suck when YOU have stated that drawing such conclusions is simply wrong? Do journalistic ethics get waived in Los Angeles but not New York? Is it okay to humiliate teachers if the superintendents don’t do what you think they should?

    In short, are you accepting scorched-earth tactics for journalists?


    • Sherman,
      If we had be doing the reporting, we would not have used full names. We have a long record of ‘frosting’ faces and such, to avoid unnecessary embarrassment, but that’s not the central issue here, as I keep on saying. The central issue is tolerating bad teaching. One year of VAM doesn’t cut it, but five years of consistent performance, great or lousy, means something to me.


      • John,

        Until you address the journalistic ethics issue, I don’t buy your claim that it’s the policy issues that are central. By its actions, the L.A. Times made the disclosure a news issue in itself. From the SPJ Code of Ethics,

        “Minimize Harm
        “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

        “Journalists should:

        “— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects….
        — Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
        — Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”

        I think the Times violated the expectations described above. John, what do you think?


  8. A bit of news – at least to me: I read somewhere that at least 2000 teachers in LA have requested their data from LAT because they were never given them. If the “named” teachers didn’t know their data before the article was published, I’m sorry for them. Does anyone know if at least they knew before publication? Have there been any public comments from the teachers?


  9. John – What percentage of teachers getting satisfactory ratings (besides 95%) would make you happy? What percentages of employees are satisfactory and above in any other field? I’m not saying that 95% or more of teachers are satisfactory or above, (I don’t know) but what percentage do you think? We should rank them in “SOME WAY” even if its wrong and that is better??? Do you read what you write?

    Are teachers at fault because a good way hasn’t been figured out? They are the only stumbling block? Or is it just really hard to do? What would be the really effective way YOU have to do that? You received a ton of comments on your last post, many thoughtful and well thought out – people took time because they care deeply about this – with great points and questions and as someone already mentioned you have just decided to ignore those points en masse.

    I asked in your last post – “Is it like 95% a teacher quality problem and everything else combined is only 5%? (poverty, health, parents that can’t or won’t support their children, and so on) No answer. So come on. What percentage of the problem with education is a teacher quality problem? 100%? 90%? 50%? 20%? 5%? 1%? Some other percentage? Just what you think. I know, I’m just a teacher in an at risk school, so probably not important enough for you to respond to. But I’m giving it a shot. Are there issues that are a bigger percentage of the problem than teacher quality? If so, which ones? YES, LET’S DEAL WITH POOR TEACHERS! Why are we focused on only that (pretty much) if there are other issues that are as important to deal with or more important to deal with? C’mon John, step up here!!!


    • I (and I think most reasonable people) would like to see some correlation between teacher ratings and student performance. Both need to be properly defined, of course. But DC’s situation–95% effective teachers and 8% 8th grade proficiency in math–is ridiculous.
      That rating approach is the equivalent of the professor’s saying ‘i taught it, but the students didn’t learn it.”
      You know that no one can answer your questions about percentages precisely, but tell me whether you are comfortable with the current situation????


      • John, what a cop out on your part. You ask: ” but tell me whether you are comfortable with the current situation????”

        This shows that you don’t read the comments people leave you carefully, but more likely just how disconnected and unwilling you are to really help our most at risk students. Yes John I work with students that are close to 100% of poverty and based on my questions and comments that scream for change and doing better for them and having the guts (which you have capitulated on obviously – you should be ashamed) to deal with more than JUST teacher quality and you throw that garbage. You are either a complete sell out to education to be friends with the rich that are pushing this narrow, misguided approach, or someone that thinks they really know what is going on by just visiting schools.

        I didn’t ask for precise answers. So you have no idea what percentage of teachers are poor or whether or not other issues facing students or teachers are more important or would have more impact, or even if the testing results and method used is valid … but you want to do that and NOT strongly advocate that we do the other things educators are suggesting would help in the same post.

        I’ll try once more: Is it like 95% a teacher quality problem and everything else combined (poverty, etc) is only 5%? 80% teachers and 20% everything else? 70% / 30%? 1% teachers and 99% everything else? Just a rough estimate would help.

        Are there other issues that we are not focusing on that would have a huge impact, but we focus mainly on teachers and reduce THEIR concerns about what would help to them being whiners instead of listening and supporting? Are we doing that JUST because it is easy to do??? What’s your take?

        What if school for at risk kids looked more like this, but even better because this and other alternative models were supported by RTTT instead of mainly just KIPP-like models pushed by billionaires? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olUn4Si22Sg&feature=youtu.be


      • In an earlier book I estimated that one-third of our schools were excellent, one-third were ‘good enough’, one third failing. I was pretty comfortable with that estimate, but I hesitate to give a number for teachers. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that 10% of teachers are not cutting it. That’s too high, because teachers matters in ways that, say, attorneys and judges do not. You can get a new attorney or appeal a decision, but there’s no do-over when a child spends a year with a bad teacher.
        I don’t know how to respond to your emotional writing. I have been in some terrific KIPP schools, and, even if the model isn’t truly scalable, it works for quite a few kids and their families. It doesn’t work for teachers, at least not for those who want a life of their own, and that’s a serious flaw.
        I have been in some fine charter schools but give the ‘movement’ a grade of C or maybe C+ overall.


      • John – Thank you, that was more the answer I was looking for. I surely don’t know the number either, I’ve heard even some major teacher bashers claim it’s 1 or 2%, even less than 1% (I wish I could remember who that was because I remember being amazed at their less than 1% statement). But 10% is at least a discussion point – but I’m curious that I haven’t heard a number much higher than that.

        I think if it was 1% it’s too high, and I know NO teacher that doesn’t agree with that. However from the advent of NCLB, so much of what teachers, especially those in at risk schools, have been told is that it’s teachers fault, teacher’s fault, teachers’s fault and the union (even though as you know non-union states are some of the states with the lowest scores).

        Teachers were looking for and expecting a change from this administration that started to address the other issues we and our students experience every day. You say we don’t turn each other in for being poor teachers and state that we know where ALL the bodies are buried – this is mistaken. The environment for teachers in many of these schools has bred suspicion and fear – partly by design, and in that environment people clam up and don’t say much because you don’t want word getting to the “wrong person.” (it’s obviously more complicated than that) You might say that that is a poor excuse and that a professional should know better … but you also better realize IT HAS BEEN THAT BAD an environment for way too many of us.

        So when this new administration did not ALSO address the other major obstacles to student success, some that perhaps have a more than 10% negative effect on the students we care a great deal about, and in fact determined to turn up the heat another notch on the teacher blame game and focus only on that, yes I’m afraid that has brought the anger and resentment to the surface, and it might get worse as this new school year progresses. Throw in this LA Times debacle, and your response, seen as another non-support, blaming all on us … and you shouldn’t be surprised at the reaction.

        Your blog is new to me and so I don’t know all you’ve written in the past, I would nudge you however to perhaps think about some follow up posts that might shed light on the other issues, some of which are very hard to deal with, and that is understandably frustrating for all involved, but make up the other 90% of the problems facing our neediest students, and contrast them to what they are doing in LA. Wouldn’t be nice if those issues saw the light of day in as dramatic a fashion?

        Thank you again for responding even in light of my “emotional response.” It is appreciated.


  10. John you allege, “It took the press to move the system off the dime, where all the adults have been complacently sitting while students fail to learn.” So I reiterate. The Los Angeles Unified School District was not complacently sitting around doing nothing about effectiveness issues, though that allegation may have been true for a long time. The LAUSD had already begun intentional reform, beginning with developing clear definitions of teacher and administrator effectiveness and a change in teacher and administrator evaluations. The Times authors knew this when they threw their grenade into the process by publishing this obviously inflammatory series of articles and releasing the teacher scores database. I am very concerned that the Times may have done serious harm to a process the district was enacting properly by engaging all stakeholders in conversation and decision-making. Will the district now rush into some tacked together process that furiously collides with anger-fueled union leadership and classroom teachers? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that crediting the Los Angeles Times for this reform really galls me.


    • I’ve had it up to here with ‘engaging stakeholders in the conversation.’ That’s jargon for meetings and committees, while those ineffective teachers stay where they are. Would you keep the swimming teacher on the job while you ‘engaged stakeholders in the conversation’ even though some kids were drowning? I hope you will read Below C Level on this issue.


  11. Sorry to rudely repost my own blog post, but I think this might hold the key to John Merrow’s sudden shift of principles. It’s the dread Village syndrome…

    Perimeter Primate, July 6, 2010
    In the Village, nobody can hear you scream

    People like me – regular parents with regular kids in regular schools, along with many other non-headline names — are having trouble fathoming how the Obama administration could so eagerly embrace the Bush administration’s education policies and push them forward. Obama’s policies even add more emphasis on high-stakes testing, on blaming teachers, and on exalting privatization.

    The forces that created and promote those policies pointedly fail to consult with or listen to educators, parents, or anyone else who spends time in actual classrooms with real live kids. ….

    The original post contains many links:


    • My principles haven’t shifted, as I think you will see if you read Below C Level. Tolerating mediocrity is the issue and the danger. Note that I say ‘mediocrity’ not ‘mediocre teachers’. I am not part of any teacher-bashing wave, but I do think that’s a danger.
      I don’t think teachers and teacher unions should be thinking about riding the wave. Instead, they ought to be pro-active


  12. Just today I realized that I could reply to individual comments and have gone back to the original post from one week ago to do that. So, if you are curious, please click back to that post for my specific responses to many of the thoughtful (and sometimes just impassioned) comments.


  13. You most certainly are part of a teacher-bashing wave, as the dozens of comments here indicate — you can’t wave that away so breezily. And it does appear to be a shift in attitude, coming in line with the Beltway crowd.

    This isn’t the first time we’ve seent he notion that “we have to try something, anything, no matter what its effects may be.” A few years ago the press was vigorously promoting for-profit charter schools as the “it’s a miracle!” solution — mainly now-fizzled Edison Schools Inc. My hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, was forcefully pushing Edison and hammering fiercely on its questioners and critics.

    A Chronicle editorial writer later explained to me that their support was based on the same notion — “we have to try something, anything.” I’m not clear how that “well, ya gotta try something, even if you’re grasping at straws” attitude translates to vigorously attacking questioners and critics, or publicly shaming teachers by name and turning them into pariahs.

    Have a nice time in the Village.


      • That’s the retort of someone with no effective response to make. I am well aware that some teachers shouldn’t be in the classroom, and others need support to improve.

        But the current education reform climate emphasizes blaming, shaming and attacking teachers to a degree far beyond what is warranted. So in the current climate, a journalistic feature adding momentum to that is not just unkind and unfair, it’s harmful. Promoting the mass disparagement of teachers promotes disdain for the profession and for education, which is surely not going to benefit schools. And that’s what overemphasizing the test-score measure and using it to tar teachers is doing.



  14. Making test scores known is not demonizing ineffective teachers. It is simply bringing to light the teachers that require assistance. I feel confident that nobody is proposing a headhunt to track down and eliminate ineffective teachers. This is just another way of identifying struggling teachers and giving them guidance and resources they need to improve. Teachers that are unwilling to hone their craft and do not heed the warnings of administrators should be phased out of our profession.
    And yes, like most sensible people, I am against high-stakes testing. But as of now, it is the system that we are required to work with and until we can convince the government to quit throwing money at education expecting it to fix itself (RTTT) we should learn from what we are given. The test scores and data contrived from them are not the tell-all of teacher effectiveness and student learning nor should they be the final word in any teacher evaluation. The data should be one factor among many to help draw conclusions about teacher effectiveness. Teachers need to be observed by principals and master teachers so they have the opportunity to demonstrate classroom management, relationships with children, ect. All of the elements of teaching need to be taken into consideration when determining a teachers effectiveness and the student’s test scores is just one of those elements. It should not be the final word of any evaluation but should be taken into consideration. Making student test scores known will help to identify ineffective teaching, and for now, it is the data that we are given and instead of rebelling against every form of high-stakes testing, I feel we should learn from the information it provides us and use it to the best of our ability.


    • It is ludicrous to think that publishing test scores of individual teachers is a way to bring to light the teachers who need assistance. I teach 100% English Language Learners. The majority of them are taking tests in a language they do not speak or read well. My test scores are always the lowest in my building. Now I suppose to some that would mean I need assistance. Perhaps I need assistance in cheating better. Do my students improve? Absolutely, but it often takes a long time and doesn’t show up until they have moved on. It is impossible to rule out test error in any reporting of scores. Are there ineffective teachers? Absolutely. Do we need to develop methods to either get them out or help them improve? Of course. Test scores, however, do not tell the story. I know that you advocate that there should be more to the story, but from my own experience those test scores always seem to outweigh the other “evidence”.


    • I agree that test data is valuable and I agree that we need to – must – for all of our sakes – find a way to get bad teachers out of the system. (As a ninth grade teacher, believe me, I suffer for the dereliction of others!) However, the test data/VAM WAS presented as the only means of identifying poor teachers in this case. In addition, if (as is likely, since this kind of evaluation is cheap, easy, and unlikely to lead to charges of “subjective” measurement) VAM becomes a major determiner of teacher quality, we will get teaching to the test at best. Cheating will become common, I believe, having already seen signs of it in students arriving in my classes, so that the data will become increasingly unreliable even as more and more lives are dependent on it. In the long run, students will suffer as creative, committed teachers refuse to work in this kind of system, and poor students, whose parents will not resist efforts to turn the schools into test factories, will suffer most.


  15. John,
    I agree with you that what was passing as teacher evaluation in most places around the country has been pathetically ineffective, to the point of being criminal–not only for students but for teachers themselves. And, if what one of the commenters above reports is true–that many of the LA teachers didn’t even know their own scores–it speaks volumes about the weakness in educational leadership and dysfunctional communication within school districts. On the other hand, responses such as Rhee’s, while more aggressive, still leave much to be desired in terms of one of the major goals of evaluation which should be to identify problems early and help people make necessary corrections before conditions reach a point where students are being harmed year after year.

    In 20 years of teaching, I know I’ve grown and developed in my field. Certainly, there were times I wished I could have had anothe chance to teach the kids who went through my classes during my first years in the profession. And, some years the results turned out much better than others. I taught tested subject/grade levels for many of those years, and sometimes the test data was helpful; other times in was not (as I mentioned in my comment on last week’s post). My administrators evaluations were for the most part useless. What was consistently helpful was the feedback from my students, parents, peers, and my own carefully constructed classroom research, and my habit of self-evaluation.

    In addition to looking at what other countries are doing to really support and improve their teaching force, we could all stand to go back and re-read The Teaching Gap and realize that we are devastating our greatest resource for true education reform–teachers.


  16. John, you wrote an article to teach your readers the truth about test-score evaluation of teachers. Among the 15 persons who are your “students” and who wrote their final exam on your lesson (see the replies above), 13 say you have no earthly idea what you are talking about and 2 agree with you. So you only scored 2/15 = 13%. That’s failure.
    But I suppose you’ll claim that this procedure of evaluating you isn’t fair. That the “students” aren’t representative of all those you have taught over the years, or that the “final exam” is not a true test of your impact or ideas, or that we, your “students,” are simply too stupid to understand or haven’t paid attention.


    • Gene, I wasn’t trying to ‘teach the truth,’ just present a point of view. Perhaps you would grade me on ‘engagement,’ and, in that case, I would get at least a passing grade, don’t you think?
      I would fail on one level–communication–because I have had to repeat myself more than once on a couple of points, specifically the responsibility of administrators in all this.


  17. If the school environment is comprehensive including the tenets our founding fathers said was so essental for a democracy to survive then ever thing else follows .

    Yes respect , honesty , responsibilty and integrity , if this is the way the building walks there talk teachers are effective young people thrive and everone wants to be there . See National Schools of Character for the evidence .

    The first mandate for public education was to produce citizens of viture to sustain the democracy, it is still what empoyers , leaders and parents want for there children or at least that is what they said in a recent survey of what they seek from K-12 education .


  18. Outside of the Village, those of us who actually USE the urban public schools (I’m beginning my 18th and final year) have watched how the “business model of education” and the reformers’ beloved toxic punitive strategies have driven good, and great, teachers and administrators out of our kids’ schools.

    With the crappy pay, incredibly challenging students, extremely difficult working conditions, and now relentless scapegoating for all of society’s ills, I’ve seen plenty of good teachers become demoralized and sick of the mess. Sure, some tune out or should never have become teachers in the first place, but plenty of them bail out of the profession or go to greener pastures in order to preserve their self-esteem and sanity.

    Most of all, I’ve observed a profound disconnect between the fixation that the Villagers, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, etc. are spending on the “bad” teacher issue and the actual number of “bad” teachers who are working in the schools.


  19. John – I understand your position, and even sympathize with it – there is a need to identify poor teachers (although with regards to LA, the ends do not justify the means.)

    But, what comes next? Let’s say LA starts getting rid of the lousy teachers, is there a cadre of excellent teachers waiting in the wings to come and fill those positions? Why do we have so many so-called bad teachers in the first place?

    I find it so frustrating that these questions are seldom, if ever, raised by those carrying the charge of “fire bad teachers!” Diane Ravitch once wrote an article entitled “First let’s fire all the teachers!” where she raised this important question, and gave the unhappy answer – the teaching profession does attract enough good candidates, for a variety of reasons. Based on the majority of the “talent” I see entering the profession, we will fire all the bad/mediocre teachers and simply replace them with more bad/mediocre teachers. Perhaps, sadly, Teach for America is the answer.

    Years ago I wrote to you and suggested that you consider a podcast on the issues raised by the authors of the book “Who’s Teaching Your Children?” You kindly responded back. The authors do a wonderful job of showing how the loss of a captive workforce has impacted the quality of the teaching profession. I feel as if this issue is the elephant in the room that no one wishes to discuss.


  20. To be clear. I’m fine with making test scores known to teachers. I haven’t fully thought out how I feel about making them publicly available in the same way that many details about school demographics and performance are publicly available — I can get all kinds of details readily online.

    But it’s an outrage, a complete collapse of journalistic standards and ethics, and an all-out attack on the teaching profession for the Los Angeles Times to convey to its readers that value-added measures are THE way to assess teacher quality While the fine print in the Times says it’s not the only way, yet the information is packaged in a way that clearly tells the reader that this IS the definitive judgment. Naming and shaming teachers deemed failing by the Times, with giant pictures of them, is despicable, and so is defending that behavior. It’s the Times and their defenders that deserve the public shaming.


  21. John,

    So let us arise from the rubble of NCLB’s high-stakes testing scam by attaching even HIGHER stakes to the tests, including the firing and public shaming of teachers. Bill Gates has determined that teachers really, really matter.

    Does the sheer ugliness of this not touch you?

    If not, have you considered the position you’ve taken here in light of Campbell’s Law, which is being born out with increasing accuracy, especially in our high-poverty urban schools under mayoral control?


  22. John,

    Thank you for taking the time to engage in such a contentious topic.

    You have obviously struck a nerve with your last two blog posts. The current system is broken. I appreciate how you have attempted to make suggestions on how to fix the situation.

    I do not have all the answers. But, after reading the comments on this post it is clear that many here would rather do nothing than attempt to fix the broken system.

    State tests scores are not reliable enough to be the sole basis for teacher evaluation. But, they do shed some insight into the situation. Ignoring that insight is foolish. These scores must be a PART of teacher evaluation methods.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts in the future.


  23. Ann L asks – what would you do if I were a teacher? Good question. We work with lots of inner city public school teachers who are fed up with the defensiveness of many of their colleagues, and deep believers that schools can do far better. These are people, like those who helped create KIPP, Achievement First, Yes Prep and UnCommon Schools, that serve virtually all low income, inner city kids, many of them students who don’t speak English at home. These folks use test scores and other measures to assess whether they are making progress with students. They don’t spend time blaming politicians, troubled families, difficult kids. These educators succeed with the vast majority of their youngsters.

    Incidentally, there are wonderful examples of such educators in both district and charter public schools.


  24. Joe,

    There it is in your comment…basically the false characterization of those who know this public shaming of teachers is one very awful idea as whiners. Whiners who do not want to be held accountable. That’s a cheap shot and a common one.

    The reasons we object are in fact quite legitimate and backed by credible research. David Cohen has rightly asked John how he answers to cautions by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Council on Measurement in Education, American Psychology Association, and the American Education Research Association. To his list we can add the Economic Policy Institute. And I have asked how his position squares with Campbell’s Law.

    The imposition of the business model in our nation’s schools has led to unprecedented levels of gaming, manipulation, and corruption. The higher the stakes you attach to test scores, the greater the corruption will be. The issue is not testing itself but the gross mis-use of tests to advance the privatization agenda.

    Jonathan, you say the system is “broken”. Many of us believe that breaking America’s public schools is the very objective of ed reform as appropriated by power and wealth. At present tens of thousands of public schools have been deemed “failing” and subjected to shame by a metric (AYP) that is beyond absurd.

    You will find very few if any teachers who do not agree that there are some teachers who should not be in the classroom. But there are far better alternatives to this shameful approach. And the whipped up hysteria over a few “bad” teachers serves to divert national attention away from the condition of childhood in this nation.

    The ed reform opportunists would have the nation believe that the primary reason achievement gaps exist is poor teaching. That is nonsense. Poverty and a host of societal ills are NOT excuses. They are harsh realities that have a profound impact on a child’s cognitive and social growth and development.


  25. “Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolution. but our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake and adjust to new ideas.
    If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged into the long, dark and shameful corridor of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” Dr. Martin Luther King

    Sorry, Tauna, you are defending a status quo that has harmed millions of kids – especially youngsters from low income, limited English speaking students. Poverty and a host of social ills ARE real problems – we agree. They are caused in part by youngsters who drop out of school, in part because they were humiliated by teachers, or taught by teachers who had been convinced that THEY (the kids) and their parents were the problems.

    Teachers via their unions have enormous financial and political power. They have helped the system we have that fails millions of youngsters – and attempts to discredit the public schools, district or charter – that are succeeding.

    Having 3 kids who graduated from urban district public schools, and having worked for more than 35 years with educator and schools throughout the US (as well as having been an award winning urban public school teacher) I have seen how educators over and over again deny and disrespect successful schools.


    • Joe, that’s quite a lesson in rhetoric.

      Step 1. Straw man argument – nothing Tauna wrote is a defense of the status quo, but saying so makes her an obstacle to any reform, right? She never said anything currently happening is fine and dandy. She’s been pointing out problems with one proposed solution to the problem, and pointing out that the problem has been ill-defined.
      Step 2. Invoke MLK Jr. – with him on your side, you must be right.
      Step 3. Play the union card. They are evil. (Nevermind how states with stronger unions outperform states without).
      Step 4. Use personal experience to offer broad generalizations about vague disrespect shown by a whole category of people towards a whole category of institutions… wait, what was your point?

      And by the way, later in the MLK essay that you quoted, he also wrote, “Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.” It seems pretty clear to me which side of the equation propels the market for testing and data to rescue our schools, and castigate teachers for pointing out the need to do something when a child is homeless and hungry.

      So, it’s now tied, 1-1, in MLK quotes. Can we get back to the point? VAM, according to the experts in the field, doesn’t do what its advocates want it to do. Why use it then? No more union baiting, no more MLK, no more “it’s better than the status quo” or “it’s better than nothing” because no one has suggested using nothing or sticking to the status quo. Where do you find support that I should listen to that will counter all the experts on this fairly specific technical question of using VAM on state tests as a part of teacher evaluation?


  26. None of the counterattacks (“defending the status quo”) addresses the issue that the L.A. Times has committed an egregious lapse of journalistic principles, standards and ethics. In fact, it’s not so much a lapse as a decision to discard them. I realize most of the posters here are not journalists, but John Merrow is, so I’m calling on him to address this particular issue.


  27. You asked, “Is there a union in the nation that would negotiate a system that provided equally for growth and for removal of ineffective teachers? “


    Check out the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program started by Dal Lawrence in Toledo Ohio 30 years ago. Dal is retired, but is still helping other unions like the DFT in Detroit adopt similar programs. We begin our first year under PAR this fall.


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