Sunday, January 23, 2011

The New Republic: Keep Teacher Data Private

by Seyward Darby
Seyward Darby is a deputy online editor at The New Republic.

On Wednesday, Slate ran an article defending several media outlets in New York that want to publish, with the support of Mayor Bloomberg's education department, value-added assessment data of the city's teachers. The outlets would be following the lead of the Los Angeles Times, which published such data last year. As Slate notes, this "data ranks fourth through eighth grade math and English teachers, purportedly based on how much progress their students have made on standardized tests from year to year."

Value-added is a controversial way of evaluating teachers because the results are just estimations; in reality, a teacher's rank falls within a percentile range that is often very large. Slate notes that, according to a study by the Annenberg Institute at Brown, an "average teacher — say, one who should fall in the 63rd percentile based on three years of performance — might actually show up anywhere between the 46th and the 80th percentile." That's a wide margin, particularly to the teacher in question. But the Slate writer, Kyle Spencer, who is also a New York City parent, is just fine with "some teachers" being "unfairly tagged" because "it is better than the alternative": wildly inflated teacher assessments on which 99 percent of educators across the nation are ranked as satisfactory.

Spencer is right about the need to reform teacher evaluations — and, more broadly, the need to assess teachers based on how their students are doing in the classroom, including on their tests. But publishing value-added data for all to read and analyze isn't the best course of action.

For starters, value-added evaluations are based on state and local tests that studies have shown often produce flawed data on student achievement. Just last year, New York adjusted its exams to reflect these problems (the tests had become too easy to pass, officials said) — and student success suddenly appeared far less substantial than it had before. More importantly, though, even with better exams in place, a teacher shouldn't be judged on test scores alone. Information about student achievement gathered from classroom observations, portfolios, and other avenues ought to count as well. (New York has agreed to institute more complex evaluations, of which value-added data will only be a part, but so recently — last summer — that it won't matter for the rankings that the media outlets want to publish soon.)

But, even when better evaluation methods exist, is it really a good idea to publish, en masse, the ratings of every public school teacher? I'm not convinced. Yes, the information should be available to those in the public who want it — namely parents. But schools or school districts, not newspapers, should share it with parents in a constructive manner, so that they are able to ask questions and understand fully what the information means. Teachers' unions and districts should also use it to remove underperforming instructors from their jobs, and to ensure that no school has a high concentration of ineffective teachers, such that its student are getting the short end of the stick. And teachers should use it either to ask for additional training resources — or to gain recognition of the good, hard work that they've done.

I'm all for transparency. But a wide-open view of incomplete information isn't what we need to improve education. What's more, broadly publicizing even the most thorough of information isn't always productive; complexities and nuances are often best conveyed in smaller settings, with the stakeholders who matter most.

The media shouldn't focus on shaming individual teachers, because there are bigger fish to fry. Indeed, across the country, they should focus on shaming the entrenched bodies, structures, and policies that allow poor teaching to continue unchecked, fail to reward good teaching, and don't provide enough support for teachers who want to improve their skills.

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