by Christopher Paslay
The Bloomberg administration has made public the performance rankings of its city schoolteachers, despite limitations of the data and flaws in the evaluation system.
It’s official: The New York City Education Department has won the legal right to make public the performance rankings of its teachers. An article in Friday’s New York Times summed-up the situation:
“After a long legal battle and amid much anguish by teachers and other educators, the New York City Education Department released individual performance rankings of 18,000 public school teachers on Friday, while admonishing the news media not to use the scores to label or pillory teachers.
The reports, which name teachers as well as their schools, rank teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English exams over five years and up until the 2009-10 school year. The city released the reports after the United Federation of Teachers exhausted all legal remedies to block their public disclosure.”
The fact that the New York City Education Department felt the need to warn the media not to use the scores to ridicule teachers is interesting because it provides a window into what is truly on their minds: The public shaming of city schoolteachers.
Bill Gates, who has donated tens of millions of dollars to public education, agrees. In a New York Times opinion piece headlined “Shame Is Not the Solution,” he wrote:
“Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating”—a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores—and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.
Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.
Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap—by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public—are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.”
Dennis M. Walcott, Chancellor of New York public schools, said his goal isn’t to shame teachers. “I don’t want our teachers disparaged in any way, and I don’t want our teachers denigrated based on this information,” he said. But if this is true, why make the information public? Isn’t it enough that teachers, principals, and other school administrators in the city have access to the data to improve instruction?
Interestingly, on top of the controversial “shame” factor associated with the public rankings, there are other problems with this cost-cutting teacher evaluation system. Here are several:
- Only teachers of reading and math get rated, as do those who teach grades 4 – 8.
- The rating system—which is based on a score of 1 to 100—has an incredibly large margin for error, according to city education officials and statisticians. On average, a teacher’s math rating could be off by as much as 35 percentage points, and in reading by 53 points.
- Some teachers are being judged on as few as 10 students.
- One teacher received a ranking for a semester when she was on maternity leave.
- Some teachers who taught English were ranked for teaching math.
- City officials said 3 percent of teachers have discovered that their reports were based on classes they never taught.
- The rankings follow a predetermined bell-curve that dictates 50 percent of teachers must be ranked “average,” 20 percent must be ranked “above average” and “below average,” and 5 percent must be ranked “high” and “low”.
But still, the data can be used to improve instruction, right?
Probably not. First, the data is nearly two years old and no longer relevant. Students have moved on to new classes and teachers have new cohorts of students. Second, a portion of the data has been discredited by suspected cheating. Third, only 77 percent of the 18,000 teachers ranked are still employed by the Education Department, and a number of those people have taken new jobs outside the classroom.
So how do others in the education community feel about the newly developed public rankings? University of Wisconsin economist Douglas N. Harris, who works at the school where the rankings were created, said that making the data public “strikes me as at best unwise, at worst, absurd.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves the idea. “Silence is not an option,” he said.
Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch, although acknowledging the need for strong teacher evaluation systems, wrote that the rankings exist primarily to pin society’s problems on teachers, the universal scapegoat.
“Of course, teachers should be evaluated. They should be evaluated by experienced principals and peers. No incompetent teacher should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.”
It’s still unclear how a flawed rating system that will ultimately shame many schoolteachers and hurt morale is going to effectively improve instruction. Although the New York City Education Department insists otherwise, it seems apparent the new high profile evaluations exist primarily to satisfy the public’s urge to place schoolteachers in the stocks and nail their so-called “sins” to the church door.