From The Editor - A misguided exercise with a tragic human cost

8th March 2013 at 00:00

Labels are easy to overlook. Fat free, reduced sugar, a third extra, eight out of 10 cats, the nation's favourite... Labels are so ubiquitous that their pleading rarely registers. When they are applied to people, however, it's different.

Excellent cook, dedicated mother, hopeless drunk, inspirational leader, dodgy accountant - those descriptions tend to stick, especially if they are widely disseminated. How about "least effective" maths teacher? If a newspaper named you as one of the least effective teachers in your area, how would you react?

A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times decided to rank individual teachers according to the progress made by their students. The rankings were necessary, it claimed, because there were no other performance measures. Assessing progress rather than achievement was fair because it measured the value added by a teacher rather than the prior attainment of the child. It was superficially egalitarian: teachers of poor children weren't penalised because they taught in poor schools that tended to perform badly; teachers in wealthy neighbourhoods couldn't automatically claim the credit for the top grades their students usually achieved. It all seemed so logical - until it was applied to actual people.

Rigoberto Ruelas was one of the "least effective" maths teachers in the city, according to the Los Angeles Times. A few days after it published its verdict, Mr Ruelas was found dead. He had committed suicide (pages 28-32). His family said his poor rating had driven him to despair. His colleagues were outraged. Thousands protested.

Today the paper remains unrepentant; it is planning to publish fresh ratings. The New York Times appears untroubled, too. It ranked 18,000 teachers in a similar league last year. The US Secretary of Education backs them, urging teachers to man up: "The truth is always hard to swallow, but it can only make us better, stronger and smarter." Politicians know these things.

These august endorsements, however, should not blind us to other sobering truths: the data are unreliable, the benefits are unknown and the human costs are all too obvious.

The Los Angeles Times, with breathtaking insensitivity, admits that "confidence in these figures varies" and that some of the data were a bit "squishy". Others are less coy. The data were "demonstrably inadequate", according to one research team. An "absolutely terrifying" and needless public exercise, said another academic. Even if the data were accurate, he added, how could it possibly improve teaching? Ludicrously, teachers of gifted students score poorly because progression is limited. An A-grade student cannot be upgraded.

Thankfully, there are no signs - yet - of teacher league tables being adopted outside the US. They were allowed to sprout there because the country lacks other accountability measures. If you never felt grateful for Ofsted before, start now.

There is another lesson to be learned. No country can improve its education if it shames and blames teachers on a regular basis. All the international studies - the ones with respectable data - agree that the best-performing systems esteem their teachers highly. Public humiliation doesn't seem to feature in any of them. And neither do undeserved epitaphs that sign off a person as "least effective".

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today