Did you hear about the Los Angeles Times? And did you hear about the teachers' union?
Let me educate you, so to speak.
The newspaper took seven years of student test scores in elementary grades in the Los Angeles public schools, the nation's second-largest district, and designed a value-added system for assessing the effectiveness of teachers.
That is to say it ranked grade-school teachers over this period based on the relative improvement in the performance of their students on standardized tests.
The paper reported Sunday — by name and with a picture of the under-performing teacher —on two fifth-grade teachers with classrooms down the hall from each other in an inner-city public school. One's classes started each school year scoring a little higher on tests on average. The other's classes ended the school year with higher test scores.
Implicit is the notion that the teacher whose kids started behind and ended ahead is better and ought to be compensated on that outcome rather than years of experience and degrees held.
The paper intends to publish on-line a database reporting the performances of 6,000 Los Angeles public school teachers in elementary grades.
So what did the teachers union do?
It organized robo-calls to teachers asking them to drop their subscriptions to the Times because of this attack on the profession.
There's even discussion of legal action against the paper, though I'm not sure how a public employee could devise a legitimate legal grievance from being held publicly accountable based on publicly reported data.
All of this strikes even nearer the heart of the public education debate than the roiling charter school controversy among Arkansas business leaders and the Little Rock School District. In fact, the Arkansas business group pushing for more charter schools in Little Rock — the Waltons and newspaper publisher Walter Hussman, mainly — are at least as intense about value-added teacher assessments.
Luke Gordy, the businessmen's hired hand, didn't know of the LA paper's undertaking until I informed him Monday morning. "That's just what we're talking about," he said.
Look for his group to press the state legislature next year for a law by which nontraditional teachers could more easily obtain alternative certification and get a chance at showing quantifiably what they can do, by much the same principle that charter schools get a measured chance to show what they can do. The contention is that good teaching can be an art or craft transcending the often-dated formulae of teacher colleges.
This issue tends to split liberals and center-leftists, some of whom side with teachers' unions and some, including those running the Obama administration's Education Department, who embrace further exploration and experimentation in performance-based pay for teachers.
I've heard all the teachers' objections to this kind of grading, but my sympathy wanes, to wit:
1. They call this an attack on the profession, when, in fact, it's an attack only on some in the profession. If you say some guy is a terrible newspaper columnist, you attack him, not all newspaper columnists.
2. They say a faculty works as a unit and that pitting one teacher against another for a monetary prize destroys any faculty teamwork. But any workplace is a team. Grading columnists based on readership shouldn't have any effect on the morale or performance of an editor, a reporter, a photographer or a page designer.
3. They say assessing a teacher by student test performance is akin to judging a dentist based on the number of cavities his patients have. Actually, though, this value-added system for assessing teacher performance is more like judging dentists based on the relative number of cavities filled properly over nine months.
The underlying point is that we need to get all our kids going to the best dentists available.