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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.

Author

Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

Comments

  1. jim2812    

    Praise God that power sometimes modifies its position and now “Los Angeles Times published an editorial chastising the Gates Foundation for their role in education reform.” Mea culpa didn’t happen when our President visited Japan and didn’t apologize for what most historians feel was our country’s unnecessarily Atomic bombings. Unlikely for the LA Times to admit its promotion of the Gates education reform agenda.

    1. Susan Nunes (@tonysam2)    

      Obama didn’t need to apologize to the Japanese for something they instigated–the US involvement into WW II thanks to Pearl Harbor in case you never heard of it. “Most historians” of any repute do not assert what you claim, so stop peddling that presentism nonsense here. Obama does, however, need to apologize to the American people for his ruinous education policies, which alone make him a flop as president. After all, it was OBAMA, through Gates and Broad Foundation money, who started the whole ruinous education policies.

  2. Kathie Marshall    

    Although I retired in 2012, those years still make my blood boil. I recall sitting in a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf being vetted as a speaker at an upcoming LAUSD convocation. The young man interviewing me was clearly at least thirty years younger than I, in an administrative position paid by the Broad Foundation–common in the Deasy years. It felt insulting! But I persevered because get a toehold in a voice for teachers was at stake. Please hear us, powers that be: Teachers are the ones with the knowledge. You need to invest in teacher leadership and grow their knowledge base from the ground up. Top down fails every time, as Mr. Gates is beginning to understand.

  3. Ann Berlak    

    Cody writes, “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.” I deeply respect Cody’s many contributions to our understanding of schooling. When I read this sentence, though, I wanted to remind us and other readers that this sentence does not state explicitly that whether or not hiring scholars and experts is a a good thing always depends upon which scholars and experts are hired, and that all experts can be wrong. Many people call themselves scholars and experts and are really apologists. The “research” on the EdTPA is one example. Readers of this blog could think of thousands more.

    1. Anthony Cody    

      Ann,
      Thanks for your comment. I should clarify, however, that the sentence you quoted was written by the editors of the Los Angeles Times, not by. me. Your point stands.

      Anthony

      Anthony Cody
  4. Randy    

    There is much more duplicity/hypocrisy here than just VAM, Mr. Cody. I quote: “That’s not to say wealthy reformers have nothing to offer public schools. They’ve funded some outstanding charter schools for low-income students.” Really? Where?The ones with all those discriminatory practices? KIPP, with it’s padded “discipline rooms” and Eva’s Success Academy, both of which basically abuse/humiliate children and develop “gotta go” lists for those who don’t “measure up”? Green Dot which came into existence saying, “We are all about raising test scores” until they failed to raise test scores at which time they changed their tune to, “We are about a lot more than just test scores”? LA Promise which is big on promises but completely missing when it comes to delivering on those promises? The disastrous “miracle” in New Orleans ongoing as we speak, the “miracle” the Times continues to tout as a miracle? Or do you mean the charter schools robbing public schools of badly needed funding, thus driving many public school districts (more and more each day) to the brink of bankruptcy across this nation? All test-prep all the time schools? Those “outstanding” charter schools, LA Times? Here’s another bit of LA Times “wisdom” in the editorial:

    “That’s great: Financial support for Common Core isn’t a bad thing. When the standards are implemented well, which isn’t easy, they ought to develop better reading, writing and thinking skills.” Says who, LA Times? You? Common Core “ought to” develop better skills? “Ought to”??? The Times is putting all its education ducks in “ought to”? Did educators ever say they would? Was that ever tested? Has Common Core ever been tested? Has it EVER been proven to develop better skills than, say, the California State Standards they replaced? Where? When? Who says support for Common Core isn’t a bad thing? Many educators believe abandoning fiction, treating children as “human capital”, requiring universal algebra proficiency, demanding all students be college and career ready AND implementing standards and tests that are often extremely age inappropriate (to say nothing of the endless obsession over those inappropriate tests) is a VERY bad thing! And by the way, how is it that high school graduates can be college AND career ready at the same time, especially given Common Core’s belittling/virtually eliminating all vocational classes?

    When it comes to “advocacy” in education, few institutions have proven more disastrous than Eli Broad, along with the Gates and Walton Foundations. But the LA Times has given all three a very good run for their money. The LA Times has given all three of them a very good run WITH all their money as well.

  5. jim2812    

    Granted that Japanese attacked our MILITARY installations in Pearl Harbor first.

    Does that in anyway equate with fire bombing Japanese civil populations; and, dropping, not one, but two Atomic bombs and wiping out two Japanese cities?

    A policy of killing by fire bombing missions and Atomic bombs is not something to apologize for because they started it? Isn’t that the playground most used response to a conflict: “The started it.”?

    If Japanese civilians are deemed less human than Americans, then of course there can be no apology. No apology necessary for America’s mass killing of Japanese civilians–ever!

    The LA Times, I believe unlike President Obama, had a profit motivate in ignoring historic responsibility for its actions. Maybe, more accurate to say that there is no profit in an apology.

    Just visiting one of the cities where we destroyed the civilian population by Atomic Bombing was the closest to an apology that was politically acceptable in President Obama’s calculation. Yet, in my opinion, his action falls short of restorative justice.

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