LA Times story puts education establishment on the spot — but is it libel???

I almost feel sorry for teachers, being as they are in a profession that is often so much maligned.

While certainly poor teachers who eat up taxpayer dollars do a disservice to their students, inflicting irreparable harm on young minds, stunting their intellectual growth forever, all teachers, most, we hope, are not poor in their abilities.

But there is a lot of mediocrity out there.

Some will tell you it’s the relatively low pay they receive in relation to their required years of education, but that is not much of a defense for individual mediocre teachers. If you already are a teacher and you are mediocre, more pay will not improve you and if you are mediocre, you were when you began. But, hey, most of us just do the best we can at our professions, regardless of however other folks might rate us.

But what brought all this to mind was an article I just read in the LA Times in a series it’s doing on teachers in the LA school district. I’m not sure whether to be proud of the paper for doing a civic duty by exposing the system, calling the school authorities to task for not really measuring teacher performance and just passing them along to quick tenure, or appalled at what seems like a possible case of libel.

The Times has taken it upon itself to do some kind of statistical analysis of teacher performance it calls a value added rating system or something like that. I don’t really care about that gobbledygook, but the idea is that it purports to show how year after year poor teachers get poor results and good teachers get good results, but the district ignores, according to the Times, these facts and basically just does the old Lake Woebegone thing and rates nearly all teachers above average.

The shocking thing to me is that it actually named an individual math teacher and compared him to another named individual math teacher in the same school and said one’s students consistently year after year started out ahead of the game and by the time the year was over were behind whereas the opposite was true in the other teacher’s class.

First I am wondering about the validity of the Times’ analytical methods.

But assuming they are valid, I am wondering about another factor brought out in the story. Most, if not all, the students are Hispanic. The teacher with the better results has an Hispanic surname. The one who lags behind is a Mr., Smith — actually both their full names are given. And that was the shock.

Now, as a former working journalist, I’m usually pretty hard core about naming names when things are in the public domain. And I have pretty much always thought that truth is the best defense against libel.

But taking the last point first, I can only hope for the reporters’ sake that what they have come up with is the truth.

And as far as naming names, that is a service to students and their parents and potential students and parents. And it does put the teachers and school officials on the spot, forcing them to face up to a problem.

The teacher exposed as a poor performer was confronted by the Times and was quoted as responding in what seemed to me with a contrite answer, saying basically he would try to do better. The guy was 63 and had begun teaching in 1996, the article said. Sounds like he made a career change — sometimes things don’t work out as you might have hoped ; oh well, he can retire soon.

I would encourage you to call up the LA Times on line — I can’t do one of those fancy links here but just Google: Who’s teaching LA’s kids, LA Times, Aug. 14. They’re doing an ongoing series of stories, as I understand it.

I found it curious that the good teacher who is described as relating well to his students had the Hispanic name, while the other guy with the Anglo name was described as not doing well in captivating the young minds. I mean that sounds almost like someone is trying to or inadvertently making a case for separate but equal, you know, the old segregated schools.

Then again, maybe the Times is on to something and is putting the entrenched establishment on the spot.

It’s important stuff. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

P.s.

I can only hope none of my former teachers read this, but while it is often said that people often have that one teacher who made the positive difference, I can’t recall any. As I said, there is a lot of mediocrity out there. That is not to say that I did not have any competent teachers.

ADD 1:

I just read over some letters to the editor in the LA Times, and some teachers commended the paper for its story(ies), but several others objected, especially to the part where teachers were accused by name as being poor performers. I have to say even though I once worked as a journalist I would object too. What makes the writers at that newspaper qualified to judge teachers or even understand the statistics and material they supposedly uncovered? That does not mean I don’t think they should report about the subject, since there is an ongoing concern over whether our children are getting a proper and effective education, but it seems that the Times has moved into character assassination. One teacher asked in a letter what the Times staffers would think if their own performance was rated in public — noting the fall in the newspaper’s circulation. Another teacher said that there are two kinds of teaching. In one you teach to the test (teachers are now pressured into doing that). In the other, teachers actually try to give their students knowledge about a subject. There is a difference, I think. I, the writer of this blog, have often witnessed in school students who can pass tests but know little and seem to have little critical thinking skills. When I was taking Spanish, I noticed that while some students always aced the written quizzes, they could not compose a Spanish sentence on their own or ad lib dialogue. In math, I was often slow at the mechanics of the whole thing, but I usually knew what was called for in word problems. I will say, however, if you have really learned a subject, you should probably be able to pass standardized tests but also be able to go beyond the testing game.

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