Monday, August 30, 2010

"But she's not there..."

The Zombies, 1964
But it's too late to say you're sorry.
How would I know, why should I care?
Please, don't bother tryin' to find her,
she's not there. --Zombies

I didn't know why the words to this '60s pop tune kept playing in my head. Then I realized, it was all because of Nancy Joanne Vinicor, the teacher who wasn't there. Normally she would have been there, there being teaching 5th graders at Clover Avenue Elementary School in L.A. But instead, Vinicor tells the L.A. Times
"I was out of the country this past school year as a Fulbright Teacher, a prestigious program granted to exceptional teachers after a thorough application process."
But her absence didn't prevent the Times from evaluating her teaching, along with that of  6,000 other teachers, based solely on their students' standardized test scores and using a new but highly suspect value-added formula.
A team of very smart Times reporters compared Vinicor with other Los Angeles Unified teachers and ranked her:
  • More effective than average overall.
  • More effective than average in math. Students of teachers in this category, on average, gained about 4 percentile points on the California Standards Test compared with other students at their grade level.
  • Average in English. Students of teachers in this category, on average, did not gain or lose significantly on the California Standards Test compared with other students at their grade level.
All this while Vinicor was a thousand miles away, working on a Fulbright.

My teacher/brother Fred tweeted an intriguing question:
If not being there because you were on a Fulbright makes you average, what would being absent to accept a Nobel prize make you?

So far, no answer from the Times gang. The whole scene presents a problem, not only for the Times, which has published the names. pictures and rankings of thousands of  L.A. teachers; for the district, which is sharing that heretofore confidential information with the media; and for Arne Duncan as well. Duncan applauded the teacher-naming, not even waiting for the ink to dry. The problem is that it only takes one example like Vinicor's to cast doubt upon the entire process.

My question is: what data was used to so-called 'rate' me? Additionally, this rating is not a reflection of the scores or the learning of my students. My school (the last year I was there) had an API of 948. My students are high achieving and happy. The ceiling is a lot closer. A random viewer can now look at personal data that inaccurately labels my performance as a teacher and reach the conclusion that I am an 'average' teacher. It is misleading. The public will not necessarily see beyond this. I, personally, am not threatened by this label, but it is simplistic and unfair to so many dedicated and hard-working teachers.

I find this process unhelpful to everyone. How will this improve teaching practices? An education encompasses so much more than a numerical standardized score. Will this benefit anyone? Accountability is crucial in any profession, especially one with such a huge impact on the future of so many, but this is not accountability. This is witch-hunting in the guise of transparency.
I'm sure that somewhere in L.A. there's a group of hungry civil rights lawyers sitting at a planning meeting with the music playing in their heads.
"Well, let me tell you about the way she looked
The way she acted, the color of her hair ..."


  1. Mike, this is an excellent point, and I will be posting about it on my Hechinger blog, The one ambiguity about Ms. Vinicor is which year she was away. Writing in August, 2010, "this past year" sounds like the 2009-10 school year, and the data only go through the 2008-09 year, when she was teaching at Clover Ave.

  2. Yes, good question Aaron. It is a bit confusing. If she was away for the year she was ranked in Times story, it makes the entire study bogus. If she was away 2008-2009, the study is only irrelevant, since parents and students couldn't select Nancy as their teacher. Plus, her "average" rating seems to badly conflict with her other high evaluations. I have contacted her to ask for more details and will try and follow up.

  3. The Vinicor story is still a good one, either way. Shouldn't the Times have informed parents Nancy was awarded a Fulbright? Doesn't her award, travel, and added prestige, add value to her as a teacher? Especially when even the authors claim that test scores aren't the totality. And if she is gone--out of the classroom--the following year, what are parents supposed to do with that data, ie. her name, picture, and test score ranking published in the Times? How will publishing them improve the choices they make for their children?


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.