The headline is a bit more of a tease than anything. Public sector unions remain the most powerful force in California politics, bar none. Yet it's difficult to escape the sense that a change is in the air. Certainly the teacher unions' desperate (and partly successful) effort to attach themselves to the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is one sign. A new poll, reported Monday in the Los Angeles Times, may be another.
According to the story:
California voters want teachers' performance evaluations made public, a new poll has found. And most also want student test scores factored into an instructor's review.
Of those surveyed, 58% said the quality of public schools would be improved if the public had access to teachers' reviews; 23% said it would not help or could make things worse....
About six in 10 voters said test scores should count for at least 30% of a teacher's evaluation. But voters also said they want a range of measures used, including parent feedback and classroom observation, to determine an instructor's effectiveness.
As Troy Senik noted Sunday, Los Angeles Unified School District officials hold the minority view on the question. The district pulled a fast one on the Times, which last year published a dynamite story and database evaluating teachers based in part on student test scores. This year, the district said it would hand over data to the newspaper, but without the names of teachers attached. (Be sure to read Troy's post for the district lawyer's maddening reasons why.)
The teacher unions have steadfastly and vociferously opposed releasing any such data, and have fought hard against changes in their contracts that would make student performance somehow relevant to evaluations of a teacher's job. Reasonable people will disagree about the virtues of "value-added" analysis of student test scores and teacher performance. As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Marcus Winters noted in the New York Times' "Room for Debate" last year:
As a statistical tool, "value-added" assessment is not a perfect measure of teacher quality. Indeed, there will never be a perfect measure of teacher quality. The real question, then, is whether this analysis can improve the methods we use to evaluate teacher performance. There is ample reason to believe that it can.
Right. The union argument against moving in this direction requires a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Nobody is saying student test scores alone should determine whether a teacher receives a favorable evaluation. Usually, as the L.A. Times story mentions, the figure under discussion is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent of a total score. That's not insignificant, but the union often portrays this as much more than it is.
Current contracts place severe limitations how administrators may interact with and evaluate teachers. Teacher union reps argue on the one hand that classroom teachers shouldn't be subject to the whims and caprices of a principal who may not like their pedagogical approach, but on the other hand they shouldn't have this heartless, data-driven evaluation system thrust upon them.
Well, they can't have it both ways. Parents and voters are less persuaded by the old appeals. "They [parents] want to see the evaluations," said Linda DiVall, the chief executive of American Viewpoint, a Republican firm that co-directed the bipartisan poll for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times. "Just like with corporate America, there is the same desire here for transparency and accountability." One poll does not make a sea change, but keep an eye on this story in 2012.