Amanda Ripley

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Data Revolution

16th Aug 2010 posted in Education

Something remarkable happened in Los Angeles this weekend. The LA Times printed the first in what appears to be a groundbreaking series about teachers in LA. The newspaper somehow got access to the individual data for 6,000 public school teachers—and then, with the help of a Rand Corp. researcher, crunched the numbers to come up with a value-added analysis for these teachers. (To see the details of the methodology in PDF form, go here.) In other words, the newspaper now knows which teachers have dramatically increased their students’ test scores over time—and which have not.

Among the more interesting findings:

“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.”

I am very curious to hear more about how the LA Times got this data. I had always been told that this kind of data was considered part of the confidential personnel record, at least in DC. At the same time, I suspected it could not remain confidential forever. Once parents begin to understand how dramatically kids’ scores can vary from one teacher to another—even within the same school—parents will begin to demand this information. It’s all well and good to say testing is out of control—until you are offered the chance to see the data for your own kid’s teachers.

Later this month, the newspaper will release a searchable database of the 6,000 teachers with their data attached. It will be fascinating to see how LA parents use this information—and whether teachers take the opportunity to respond to the assessments (as the newspaper has invited them to do.) For now, the union has called the series “dangerous” and is calling for a boycott of the newspaper.