If you were a parent of a Los Angeles school child this year, instead of relying on mommy gossip, you could look up your child's possible third-grade teachers on a Los Angeles Times website and see which one was the most effective based on how his or her students performed on standardized tests.
If the students went on to perform as expected in fourth grade, the "added value" of the third-grade teacher would be considered neutral. If the students performed better than expected in fourth grade, based on their third-grade scores, then the teacher clearly had been the reason – had been of "added value" - and might even expect a bonus.
If the students performed worse than they should have been expected to perform, the teacher would be seen to need remediation. Or the teacher might be fired, as 100 were in Washington, D.C., last year.
This system of crunching numbers and coming up with a teacher's "added value" is fraught, and teachers have a right to be heard on its suspect methodology. Even those who support the added value concept admit that the numbers can be all over the map for a number of reasons.
The best teachers are often assigned the worst students. Students already performing at a high level can't be expected to make big leaps. The material can be substantially more challenging in, say, ninth grade than it was in eighth. What if the school added an after-school homework and tutoring program? What if it was, perhaps, a military town and the student population changed every couple of years?
The fact is, we have never had transparent competency testing for teachers and the teachers unions are the reason. (As you might expect, teachers unions called for a boycott of the Times after it posted the scores on line.).
But even a perfect numerical measure of teacher effectiveness would not improve schools unless veteran, skilled teachers, after observing in the classroom, made concrete suggestions for improvement and followed through.
No matter what a school's reputation, parents know that it is the teacher in the classroom who matters more.
That's why helicopter mothers spend the summer gathering intel from other parents on everything from the most loving kindergarten aide to the high school Advanced Placement teacher whose students consistently perform well on the year-end AP tests.
If teachers didn't matter, these same mothers would not be camped in the school office each September until the principal finally agrees to move their child to a different class.
I confess, that is exactly how I managed my own children's trip through public school. I used all my resources to find out who the best teachers were, and all my influence to make sure my children were in their classrooms. And, most of the time, it worked.
But education is too important for teachers to be ranked by word of mouth, or for the worst of them to go undiscovered and unsupported.
And education is too vital a commodity for the best classrooms to filled by the mothers who make the most noise.