Friday, August 20, 2010

The Dance and Data of the Lemons

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2010 at 4:47 PM

Last week, the LA Times began an ambitious series focused on teacher effectiveness at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Using value-added data compiled from seven years of math and English test scores, the newspaper is exploring the (often, quite large) disparities between effective and ineffective teachers.

The fifth-graders at Broadous Elementary School come from the same world — the poorest corner of the San Fernando Valley, a Pacoima neighborhood framed by two freeways where some have lost friends to the stray bullets of rival gangs.

Many are the sons and daughters of Latino immigrants who never finished high school, hard-working parents who keep a respectful distance and trust educators to do what's best.

The students study the same lessons. They are often on the same chapter of the same book.

Yet year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall. The difference has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students or their parents.

It's their teachers.

As Memphis is all well aware, teachers are traditionally viewed as if one is just as good as any other, even though principals and teachers know they're not. That's what the MCS teacher effectiveness initiative is striving to solve, in part by bringing less effective teachers up to the same level as their effective counterparts. Because of tenure, it can be difficult to get rid of an ineffective teacher.

(In Waiting for Superman, the movie references what is called "the dance of the lemons," wherein the teachers that principals dub lemons are fobbed off on other schools at the end of each school year. There are other names for it, but the movie calls it "the dance of the lemons," and I have it on good authority that's what it's called here, too.)

The investigation found that the best teachers were not concentrated in the most influential neighborhoods, that a child's teacher had three times more influence on the student's academic success as the school they were enrolled in, and that a teacher's experience or training had little bearing on whether they improved their students' performance.

There is some question as to the validity of value-added data, and the local teachers union has already called for a boycott of the LATimes over the series.

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