Shouldn’t we use data for the intended purpose?

When I first heard about The Los Angeles Times doing investigative reporting regarding student annual test scores and the relationship to teachers ability or perceived lack there of, I was listening to NPR and had to get out of the car for work.  The initial way I heard the details caused a mild sense of both frustration and anxiety and then later, when driving home and not hearing any more about the topic, I began to think there was more to this story, which is why NPR did not say much – they were researching and investigating before they reported more details.

Like NPR, I believe the devil is in the details and how one presents an idea and the anticipated outcomes should also include a peek at the potential unintended consequences.  There are two sides to this issue – neither of which is good in any light and both sides of the problem actually having relatively nothing to do with student education so I decided to to talk about the real issues underlying what is going on in hopes some one, some where will read this blog and a light bulb may go on and people will rethink the issue before publishing the mushy data. I am not in the teachers camp nor the school district camp – I am in the camp of the students and trying to determine how the data could be best used appropriately to the value of improving education and student outcomes.

First of all, I keep seeing the word correlation but not causality.  If a person is trying to obtain their PhD at a reputable university, correlation is not considered causality and so, not quite a tight case. The misuse of this word is important in evaluating research and so the lack of seeing the word causality was the first warning flag this was not a circus coming through town, rather a disaster looking for a cliff to launch off of – quickly. I am supporting this with the following out take of The Wall Street Journal:

In a paper last year, University of California, Berkeley economist Jesse Rothstein showed that there is a strong correlation between teachers who score well on these value-added measures one year and how much their students gained the prior year. That implies that teachers who do well in these systems are benefiting from favorable classroom assignments.

 I started thinking about how many lawsuits would begin to clog the courts from now until eternity dealing with any teacher who received tenure and then was booted (or politely asked to leave for the good of the organization in the case of charter schools) based on an accumulation of test data being published in the L.A. Times AND the number of harrassment, libel, etc. suits.  Although I find Michelle Rhees one of the least promising aspects in public  education, at the very least she did not go public with the teachers she fired – for whatever reasons. Kudos to Michelle for not going the extra step of adding insult to injury and, more than anything, avoiding crazy litigation.  There are going to be many principals, assistant superintendents, supes, school board members, etc. called into question for anyone fired after the fact and I would not want to be the person who had signed off on any paperwork stating a teacher was tenured and then, magically, NOT.   My best example includes Principal Suzie Oh and teacher Karen Caruso at Third Street School in Los Angeles.

It seems as I research this issue, everyone, including teachers, is in agreement to use the data for good purposes and many people are worried about the correlation with lack of causation to the point they do not believe individual teachers should be identified publicly.  My own alma mater, Teachers College at Columbia University, funded the project but would not get involved in the analysis….that was odd to me yet also another warning about mis-interpreting data and being the university caught up in the clap trap.

I could not find inciteful comments from any of the big and reputable education schools/education departments – Stanford, the Ivy League, University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, etc.   Amazingly, the charter schools which feast on data have also seemed to step from the fray by making no comments. It would seem to me The Los Angeles Times could get one education contingent on board other than economists (especially since Freakonomics is now a movie) before they become the Lost Angeles Times from the union outrage.

I have now read numerous teacher comments, opinions issued by various key players (all noted in my post tags and the affiliations of the individuals I found in print) and talked with my teacher colleague friends and my own consensus is, be careful what you wish for.  LAUSD may see the data as the best way to clean house and start over while I see something akin to a witch hunt (witch hunts NEVER turn out well according to history).  Publicly shaming teachers is most likely in violation of something regarding confidentiality as the names of students from their classes can be brought into play, and I would not want to see that, however, the courts would.  The can of worms for that issue could get very ugly.

Yes, the data potentially has many beneficial aspects and it can put the whole school district on notice, as a whole entity.  The data can focus laser attention on specific schools and specific grades.  Whatever else the data is used for in the realm of public humiliation so principals, parents, school districts and so on have scape goats in the post NCLB country we inhabit, it does not bode well.  Better to re-run the data and find some causality before going public and destroy the many lives of the very people who only a mere two years ago were slated to get help in improving their practice.   The visual of the ‘frog in the blender’ – the frog’s back against the container and the claws hanging on to the edge while the blade whizzes about is what comes to mind.

Update 10 November 2010:

“Who got the ‘F’? L.A. Times,” chanted the crowd, which was made up mostly of students, teachers and parents from Miramonte Elementary School, where Mr. Ruelas taught fifth grade.

Although the above statement is rhetorical in nature, it bears thought – was it the school principal who failed in adequately coaching Mr. Ruelas?  Was it the HR department for hiring him in the first place? Was it the school board for allowing the LA Times to publish such gut wrenching, anguishing data OR was it the parents of the students who failed to succeed due to bad parenting

We will never know how many students in the class Mr. Ruelas taught were poorly parented and failing Grade 5 for reasons other than his ability as teacher – that data is secretly and securely locked away to protect the underage children.  What we do know is Mr. Ruelas was being held accountable to undo approximately 10 years of bad parenting and potentially five years of bad teaching prior to his arrival on the scene.   There is no other name for this than harrassment. LAUSD and The LA Times ‘failed’ in their professionalism in order to grab public attention.