Not exactly covered with glory in L.A.

The big K-12 story this week is the L.A. Times series on value-added measures of intermediate and middle-school teachers in reading and math in the Los Angeles Unified School District. My brief impression: I don't think anyone in L.A. is covering themselves in glory this week. Folks such as Alexander Russo and Rick Hess have pointed out that naming individual teachers crosses an ethical line for a number of people, and I'm one of them. It's not as disgusting a practice as shoving a TV camera and mic in the face of someone who just lost a family member in a horrible accident or murder, but it smells of gotcha journalism. I don't care if you want to "start a conversation" about teacher evaluation–you don't "start a conversation" by public humiliation of people who did not choose to live in a fishbowl.

As I said, I don't see where any of the key actors have exactly covered themselves in glory here, and that includes A.J. Duffy, the head of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Anyone in his position would be in a tough spot responding to this, but I think I would have chosen some different ways to respond. Yes, sure, get your members to protest the Times' series. Boycott the newspaper? Err… what about civics classes where students should be discussing the news?

One way of asking questions about ethics is to ask what options were available, what options are feasible options to address the same needs. Did the L.A. Times have to identify specific teachers by their real names? Does it have to release the names of individual teachers, and I'm guessing this is going to be all point estimates without margins of error even under the model the analysts used? When I've asked reporters about such choices, they usually justify decisions to publish as in the public interest. I'm not sure why attaching individual names is any more productive to public debate than not, and it just looks sensationalist. My guess is that the numbers attached to teachers are going to turn out to be much less "hard" than what is published. And there is plenty of public debate in various states about the use of test-score data without divulging information about individual teachers.

I think the L.A. Times fails the ethics test because it could have accomplished the same goal on debate by discussing the distribution of the data or even individual teachers with identities masked.

UTLA's response was three-fold: (a) ask teachers to be vocal in protest of the L.A. Times' series; (b) ask teachers and the general public to boycott the Times; (c) use their disagreement to argue more generally against using student test scores in evaluation. The boycott call is attracting some public attention, and my guess is that it was a snap decision by the UTLA leadership. Effective boycotts are not usually snap decisions. (If you want to talk about the Montgomery bus boycott, you need to brush up on your history, starting with Jo Ann Robinson.) One of the reasons why snap decisions are risky is that too often a group doesn't consider alternatives. (I know from experience, having been in the room during such discussions and feeling the need to add such consideration of alternatives.)

My question here is not whether a boycott can't be effective in the short term; I'm sure that UTLA can pinch the Tribune company's revenues a tiny bit and maybe more. My concern is more about the need by teachers for a society that values newspapers. So teachers pressure the L.A. Times with a boycott today. Newspapers are already operating under enormous pressures, with far fewer resources devoted to serious journalism. On balance, active journalism is in teachers' interests, even if a single newspaper makes a huge mistake. Is an economic penalty for this series really in the interests of teachers? The L. A. Times screwed up this week in revealing individual teacher data, but other papers have revealed various scandals that actively harmed teachers. I am very grateful that the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald state bureau uncovered a scandal involving a former House Speaker and a community-college president. In my capacity as the head of my little university faculty-union chapter, I know I'm going to win some and lose some in newspaper coverage. But on the whole, newspapers are my friends.

Alternatives that UTLA could have chosen:

  • Protesting at the Times building (making the L.A. Times the story itself for evening news)
  • Demanding publicly that the Times release the data to them for alternative analyses, and then conducting a sensitivity analysis
  • Organizing precisely the administration-clogging demands that Diane Ravitch predicted, and persuading all the parents in a grade at one or more schools to demand in writing that their children all be with the "best" teacher as the Times listed her or him. And then publishing the principal's response.

I've never had Saul Alinsky-like organizing training, so I'm sure there are some additional, more creative approaches.

Then there's the question of whether the UTLA stance on test scores and teacher evaluations is in the bargaining unit's long-term interest. On that, I don't know, though I would have made a different choice. I can't pretend that the choice I would have made is guaranteed to be better, but I can point out that my state affiliate, the Florida Education Association, refused to sign on to the state's first Race to the Top application, fought Senate Bill 6 with tooth and nail… and then turned around to work with several opponents on the second Race to the Top application. So it's possible to be very tough and willing to fight and not take the same policy position as UTLA.

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3 responses to “Not exactly covered with glory in L.A.”

  1. Dan Willingham

    Great post, Sherman.
    The “start a conversation” dodge has been used by others when they want to draw a premature conclusion that they know is explosive.

  2. Jonathan

    It sounds like you disagree with the union about newspapers and (partially) about testing… their response flows from things you don’t agree with… and that makes me think your issue is not with their response but with something more fundamental.