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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ernesto is Dead and It Matters to Me

Yesterday, I was driving home from school and listening to Marketplace when a piece from their series, "My Life is True," aired. It was from a man named Leo Webb and this is what he said:

... I just got back from Iraq...

... I got 17 confirmed kills. I didn't see their faces. I only saw them through a scope and blew their brains out. I didn't meet them, or ask how many kids they had. When you kill somebody, you kill their family too. It all goes downhill.

That part about when you kill somebody, you kill their family, too, yeah, I kept thinking about that.

One year ago today, a man I never met was gunned down outside a liquor store in East Hollywood. It was 8:34 PM and Ernesto was alone when he walked out to the parking lot where he was confronted by one or more assailants. And then he was dead.

When we first moved to Los Angeles, we lived just blocks from where Ernesto died, but I didn't know him. He was born, grew up, became a father to his son Joshua, and died without my knowledge.

I have no memory of what I was doing one year ago today. It was a Monday night and I imagine I had just finished reading my daughter a bed-time story and, at the moment Ernesto died, I was probably watching her sleep and loving her quietly.

I suspect that if news of his death had reached me before today, I wouldn't have cared much. Even if I'd heard about it yesterday after listening to Leo Webb, I wouldn't have understood. Just another young man pulled under by a rogue wave in Ocean Los Angeles.

But I would have been wrong.

Ernesto had a sister. She was six years younger than he and he wanted her to be everything he wasn't. She was going to graduate high school. She was going to stay on the straight path. She was his baby sister and he loved her very much.

He took good care of her. He watched out for her at home and on the streets. He gave her love and support and advice and he regularly reminded her, both in words and in looks, that she was someone special to him. She loved him, too. Very much.

And then he was killed.

When she came to us a month ago, a small girl, rising barely over five feet tall who wore her hair short and had bleached it down to an orange-gold which brought out her startlingly hazel eyes, she was a bit of a cipher. We don't get good students very often and when we do, it's because something bad has happened. But this girl laughed easily and well. She seemed happy and at ease with where she was and what she was doing. She made friends quickly and was quick to help others. She seemed fine.

But she's not fine. She's Ernesto's family and it was murdered, too.

She's barely holding it together and I only found it out because I happened to notice today, on the anniversary of her brother's murder, that things were different. A year ago she lost her anchor and her compass and she's with us because, on her own, she breezed onto the rocks, failing classes and missing school.

She came to us because she wants to right herself, but it's harder than she imagined. At seventeen, being your own rock and compass is a heavy and complicated load, but she's trying hard.

She even came to school today and I have rarely been prouder of such a simple accomplishment.

On my way home I said a small prayer for Ernesto and then another one for his sister. And then I said a prayer of thanks to Leo Webb, even though he's not dead, for speaking so clearly about so many things that are wrong with death.

I thought about saying a prayer for all the other families who's names are on the LA Homicide Report, but it felt like too much to do on my own.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Educational Moneyball: Why Value-Added Analysis Will Fail

My students are all on the far side of screwing up in school and if you ask them what went wrong in their education, their answer is almost always a variation on a theme. Somewhere along the line, they each ran into the teacher who wrecked education for them. The teacher that called them an animal or the teacher who was never there, or the teacher who told them that they were stupid or (more common than you would think, even in South Los Angeles) the teacher who told them that they weren't going to succeed anyways because they were poor and black or poor and brown or poor and from a Spanish-speaking home.

A bad teacher most likely won't destroy the life of a student who isn't already riding wildly along the rim of disaster, but a shocking number of kids are doing just that and a bad teacher can push them right over the edge.

And all of us in the profession know that a single good teacher is rarely enough to pull them back.

Everybody agrees that teachers matter. Teacher's unions say that teachers matter. Experts say that teachers matter. Students say that teachers matter. Parents say that teachers matter. Left, right and center all acknowledge the fact that bad teachers do damage and people agree that good teachers can change lives.

But the question remains, how do we legitimately judge teacher efficacy?

A few days ago, a wide-ranging longitudinal study on the long-term effects of teacher quality was released by the thinking people of Harvard University. This study makes the claim that a single effective teacher in 4th grade can increase a student's lifetime earnings by 1.5% and a single ineffective teacher can result in damage equivalent to missing 40% of a school year. The study used the value added metrics first popularized by the Los Angeles Times and then partially adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District to determine teacher quality.

Essentially, value-added is a statistical model that incorporates year-by-year gains for individual students on standardized tests and then regulates for factors such as race, economic station, transiency, English-language fluency, previous schools, and gender. It is only useful for longitudinally tested subjects which currently are only math and English. It is an effective measure of testing improvement for students in 3rd through 11th grade if one believes that the only valuable measure of success is student improvement in math and English testing.

And the truth is that it does, indeed, help show that some teachers are more effective than others. It is the educational equivalent of Sabermetrics and now we have a generation of scholastic Billy Beanes who think that they've found a solution.

But much like Beane's Oakland A's, value-added is not the tool that is going to win the last game of the season.

Math and English scores may be the on-base-percentage of the teaching world, but there is much more to both both baseball and teaching than simple numbers because in both cases the numbers are overwhelmed by the simply unquantifiable human element.

A value-added analysis will not show which teachers were able to get their students to think and a value-added analysis will not reveal which students were inspired. A value-added analysis is not applicable for those who choose to work with untestable children in special education or alternative settings and a value-added analysis cannot touch subjects such as social studies, art, business, or the sciences.

Oh, and value-added analysis relies on standardized tests that most people agree are deeply flawed.

A reliance solely on value-added analysis, as is the case with the Harvard study, ignores the fact that education is a group effort. Just as sabermetrics cannot assess team chemistry, value-added cannot parse the influence of other teachers who have helped improve the literacy and numeracy of the tested teacher's students. Value-added analysis assumes that education happens in a vacuum and that no other person is meddling in the minds of students. But my students are learning from a half-dozen other teachers at the same time they are learning from me and my efficacy is as much a reflection of their efforts as it is of my own.

This is why value-added cannot be the winning formula in education.

But we still need to be able to determine which teachers are effective. We all agree. I have my own thoughts on this (please read -- I think my "1% for Teachers" plan is a real solution), but right now I am much more concerned that some of our greatest thinkers are already satisfied that they've found an answer in the value-added analysis.