New York to release teacher evaluations, without the names or the shame

New York teachers rally around the public release of teacher evaluations, but without a ranking that they (and Bill Gates) say won't improve education for kids.

Tim Roske/AP
New York Assemblyman Peter Lopez (R) speaks about public disclosure of teacher evaluations, during an Assembly debate on June 21 at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y.

As school systems around the country start to implement teacher evaluation programs, as both the Obama administration and GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney have advocated, they are all going to have to answer this one key question: How should that information be publicized?

New York legislators settled on a solution that could serve as a model for the rest of the country, after complicated negotiations led to passage of a last-minute compromise bill on Thursday that allows evaluations to be made public – but only without teachers’ names, unless a parent requests a report for his or her own child’s teacher.

Tying teacher performance to student test scores has been a central tenant of the Obama administration’s school reforms, but the release of teachers' individual results in Los Angeles and New York – the first two school districts to make that information public on a large scale – “created a real firestorm,” according to Sean Corcoran, an education policy expert and professor at New York University.

That’s because there’s no universally accepted way to evaluate teachers. Critics say evaluation data are often taken out of context, shaming individual teachers without improving classes.

Last time, evaluations that in some cases had more than a 60 percent margin of error led to the New York Post running a story about “the worst teacher in the city,” based on data that Mr. Corcoran says “was intended to be used by professional educators to evaluate other professional educators. I don’t think it was set up to be a restaurant grading system,” he says.

That’s why New York legislators decided to try to prevent a repeat of last February’s debacle.

This time, say Corcoran, the plan is “a decent compromise” that gives parents information about schools but doesn’t put specific individuals’ results into the public eye, without additional context.

As other school systems roll out their new teacher evaluation systems – which vary from state to state, but are being installed all over the country – New York’s way of releasing teachers' performance statistics could be a model that satisfies most educators and school reformers, he says.

Of course, not everyone will be happy. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate of  full-disclosure, says that making teachers’ performance reviews public is the best way to improve accountability. He released a statement saying, “I am disappointed that this bill falls short of that goal.”

But the decision to grant teachers anonymity in the public release of their evaluations won over a key former foe: the city’s main teachers’ union. The United Federation of Teachers, which opposed “Mayor Bloomberg’s insistence on releasing the misleading and inaccurate Teacher Data Reports" earlier this year, released a statement on Thursday praising the legislature’s “major steps on behalf of our schools and our children."

The move is also in line with what Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates called for in an opinion essay in the New York Times last February, when New York first released the controversial results. "I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness," he said. "But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work."

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