Sunday, August 15, 2010

The LA TIMES Cracks Out of Turn When It Doesn't Know The Shot

David Mamet*

I'm not sure what I was doing or where I was the day the LOS ANGELES TIMES went from being a newspaper to being a national leader in evaluating teacher quality. Perhaps it was supposed to be kept secret, like what was discussed and said at the meeting Dick Cheney had with Big Oil executives a decade ago. If so, several  TIMES reporters have blown it with a recent article, WHO'S TEACHING LA'S KIDS?

In it, three reporters, Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith, present ratings of "teacher effectiveness." In particular, they single out one particular fifth grade teacher, John Smith, and claim he is the least effective teacher for his grade level in his school. Mr. Smith's photo is at the beginning of the article that purports to know, based on kids' scores on administrations of a single standardized test, which teachers are helping their students, teaching effectively, and making a positive difference, and, of course, which, like Mr. Smith, are allegedly failing to move their students ahead. 

I wrote the following to these reporters today and will be fascinated to see if any of them respond. I know that were I John Smith, I'd be speaking to my attorney and considering lawsuits against several parties, not the least of whom are Jason Felch, Jason Song, and Doug Smith. As I am not, the best I can do is try to point out how wrongheaded, how irresponsible, and how ultimately counterproductive is both their article and the methods they employ to smear the professional integrity of many fine teachers who for any number of reasons may not "measure up." The professional integrity I call into question, however, is that of these reporters, their editors, and others who profit from the publication of this sort of cheap-shot, ignorant journalism. 

If you start with the absurd assumption that multiple-guess
standardized test scores tell us anything (let alone EVERYTHING) we
need to know about teacher effectiveness or student learning of
subject matter or all the other things that teachers and schools are
about (not all of which are good, but that's another debate entirely),
then it follows that the LA TIMES is as qualified as anyone else with
no expertise whatsoever in psychometrics to determine which teachers are "most
effective" and which are "least effective." Further, with the same
starting assumption, there's nothing unconscionable about reporters
and editors  from that noble publication choosing to print a photo of
a so-called "ineffective" 5th grade teacher and include the following
in the article:

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.

With Miguel Aguilar, students consistently have made striking gains on
state standardized tests, many of them vaulting from the bottom third
of students in Los Angeles schools to well above average, according to
a Times analysis. John Smith's pupils next door have started out
slightly ahead of Aguilar's but by the end of the year have been far

But if the assumption is false, then what the TIMES and its reporters have done is to pillory one 5th grade teacher on the wheel of meaningless test scores. They have, in fact, violated two  fundamental principles of psychometrics: never use a test designed to measure one thing (e.g., student achievement) to measure something it was not designed to measure (e.g., teacher effectiveness), and never use a single test score or measurement type to draw definitive conclusions (particularly not in the social sciences). Further, they have made the fundamental error of assuming that correlation (Teacher A's kids scores are higher than Teacher B's scores) equates with causation (Scores rose primarily BECAUSE of the superior teaching skills and methods of Teacher A).

In fact, the above-cited article is so fraught with error and leaps of logic (and bad faith) as to be utterly, irredeemably worthless, not unlike the test scores upon which its false (and probably libelous) conclusions are based. But then, the article's authors began with a patently incorrect assumption, and  they very likely had its conclusions well in mind to begin with.

So I am moved to ask: may we expect in the near future an article by the same reporters on which LA TIMES journalists are "most effective" and "least effective" based on how sales of the paper are impacted by their articles and reportage?

May we expect that the reporters will be taking, say, the tests given to high school kids in LAUSD (I assume all these journalists graduated from college) or perhaps the SAT or ACT (or, Darwin forbid! the GRE) and publishing the results in the paper? How about the politicians who pushed and voted for using these tests as fair measures of a host of things they were never designed to assess? (And I include in that list not only state and local officials, but every US senator, congressperson, US Department of Education secretary, and every US president from William Jefferson Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Hussein Obama who has supported these tests as the measure of all things.)

Let's shed more sunshine on the test-based competence of our reporters and politicians. Publish and publicize their scores. Threaten, meaningfully, to hoist these folks by their own petard and we'll see some critical examination of the assumption that the tests are valid and reliable, as well as adequate measures alone of effectiveness or lack thereof. My suggestion is no worse than what politicians and reporters are doing now with kids, administrators, schools, districts, and, of course, everyone's favorite scapegoat, public school teachers.

Until such time, shame on Messrs. Felch, Song, Smith; shame on the LA TIMES. Shame on anyone and everyone who buys into the ridiculous test-mad nonsense that has this country by the throat.

Michael Paul Goldenberg

p.s.: Lest someone suggest otherwise, my last official GRE scores, taken in October 1991, are Verbal 800; Mathematics 780; and Logical Reasoning 720. I feel safe in putting those scores up against those on any comparable test of the three reporters, any member of the LA TIMES staff, any current legislator in California or the United States Congress. I've spent over 30 years preparing students for various standardized tests and debunking many of the myths surrounding them. I'll happily meet anyone on the standardized test battle ground, No. 2 pencils aready at dawn or high noon.

*For those wondering what David Mamet's photo is doing at the beginning of this blog entry, it has to do with the title of my post. Mamet is very fond of the language of con artists. Apparently, our intrepid LA TIMES reporters are not unfamiliar with both the short and long cons. Or perhaps it's just their editors, the publisher, and others with vested interests in destroying US public education.