By Anthony Cody.
This week the Los Angeles Times published an editorial chastising the Gates Foundation for their role in education reform. The editors wrote:
…the Gates Foundation has spent so much money — more than $3 billion since 1999 — that it took on an unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy. Former foundation staff members ended up in high positions in the U.S. Department of Education — and, in the case of John Deasy, at the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The foundation’s teacher-evaluation push led to an overemphasis on counting student test scores as a major portion of teachers’ performance ratings — even though Gates himself eventually warned against moving too hastily or carelessly in that direction. Now several of the states that quickly embraced that method of evaluating teachers are backing away from it.
Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools. The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.
These are some valuable lessons – especially in Los Angeles, where philanthropists like Eli Broad continue to wield great influence.
But wait just a gol-durned minute.
While the Los Angeles Times takes care to trace the Gates Foundation’s role in education back to 1999, they say not a word about their own foray into education reform in 2010. Then, at the same time the Gates Foundation was gearing up for the release of Waiting for Superman and NBC’s Education Nation, the LA Times published a series of articles on “teacher effectiveness,” and commissioned an economist to create their very own VAM system. They even went so far as to publish the names and ratings for thousands of Los Angeles teachers.
For this “investigative series,” the LA Times cite as their authority for their foray into the pseudoscience of VAM none other than Thomas Kane, who was then working for the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project. They wrote:
In Kane’s experiment, conducted at Los Angeles Unified with administrators’ permission, 156 district teachers who volunteered for the project were randomly assigned to classrooms. Kane and his colleague tried to predict, using value-added analysis, how students would do under those teachers. The projections were then compared with the students’ actual results.
The conclusion: Value-added analysis was a strong predictor of how much a teacher would help students improve on standardized tests. The approach also controlled well for differences among students, the study found.
With $45 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kane and other researchers are now following 3,000 teachers in six school districts to see if other types of evaluation — including sophisticated classroom observations, surveys of teachers and reviews of student work — are also good measures of teacher performance.
In the meantime, Kane said that, although it is not perfect, “there is currently not a better measure of teacher effectiveness than the value-added approach.”
So the Times used this rationale – from the Gates Foundation, when they published the names of and ratings of thousands of LA teachers. Many were wrongly rated “ineffective,” including Rigoberto Ruelas, who tragically took his own life after his rating was made public.
I have a question related to journalistic integrity. How can the LA Times chastise the Gates Foundation – and their disciple John Deasy, without acknowledging their own embrace of Gatesian reforms? The LA Times did not just report on the issue – they created their very own VAM system, and criticized Los Angeles Unified for not using such a system to weed out “bad teachers” and reward those identified as “effective.” They were active advocates, instrumental in the war on teachers that has been so devastating to morale over the past decade.
I participated in a forum in September of 2010 called “Grading the Teachers,” organized by the UC Berkeley schools of Journalism and Education. I was on a panel with Jason Felch, one of the reporters responsible for their “investigation” into teacher quality, and VAM ratings. The video of this panel can be viewed here:
I shared my remarks on this post, The Media’s War on Teachers.
I concluded by saying:
The barrage of unfair criticism against teachers, especially those in low-performing schools, is having a deeply demoralizing effect. One of those teachers was Rigoberto Ruelas, who took his life this week. A dedicated teacher in South LA for the past 14 years, with a perfect attendance record, his family said he had been upset and depressed since the LA Times listed him as being ineffective. He may be the first casualty in America’s war on teachers.
As the panel ended and I went to leave the stage, Jason Felch extended his hand and I shook it. He drew me close and whispered in my ear, “That was despicable,” referring to my choice to invoke the name of Ruelas. (As a footnote, Felch was fired several years later for ethical reasons.)
In the field of journalism, there is a pretense that bloggers such as myself are practicing “advocacy,” while reporters like Felch and Song are conducting objective investigations. This distinction has been used to justify the exclusion of bloggers from consideration for awards from the Education Writers Association. The LA Times VAM project is a case study in advocacy cloaked in journalistic garb. It even won a second place award from the Education Writers Association. The Los Angeles Times should reflect a bit about its own role in promoting the Gatesian reforms it now rejects. And the Education Writers Association should recognize that the line between journalism and advocacy is not as sharp as they would suggest, and does not justify their policies that discriminate against bloggers.