On Friday morning, the New York City Department of Education released ratings of 18,000 teachers, based on how much their students had improved in math and English as measured by state tests. New York is the second city, after Los Angeles, to publish teachers names and their ratings.
The teachers union has been fighting their release for a year and a half, and even Bill Gates chimed in on Wednesday in the opinion pages of The New York Times, calling it a "capricious exercise in public shaming." Douglas N. Harris, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, who helped develop the rankings, said that publicly releasing them "strikes me as at best unwise, at worst absurd."
But a judge ruled two weeks ago that the Department of Education could indeed release them, even though teachers have identified factual errors in their reports, and respected statisticians have criticized the methodology. The judge found that the public interest in teacher performance trumped any issue over teacher privacy, and that "there is no requirement that data be reliable for it to be disclosed."
The reports show that over the five years that scores were tallied, 521 teachers were consistently in the bottom 5 percent, and 696 were consistently in the top 5 percent, reports The New York Times. Half of the teachers ranked "average," and 20 percent each "above average" and "below average." But the margin of error on some of the scores reaches as high as 35 points on the math test and 53 points on the English test, and were occasionally based on sample sizes as small as 10 students.
"The purpose of these reports is not to look at any individual score in isolation ever," said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city's Education Department's Chief Academic Officer. "No principal would ever make a decision on this score alone and we would never invite anyone, parents, reporters, principals, teachers, to draw a conclusion based on this score alone."
What Do They Mean?
The scores come from a comparison of how well students did on a test compared to how one would expect them to do, given their previous test score, attendance rates, ethnicity, poverty level and other factors. In sum, it's an attempt to isolate the value added by the teacher to the mix. The score is then placed on a scale of 0 to 99, which is meant to indicate where a teacher stands in comparison to a teacher of similar experience.
These ratings, known as Teacher Data Reports, began as a pilot program five years ago, and city officials vowed that they would not be used in termination decisions, and that they would battle any attempt to make them public. But back in October 2010, city officials urged a handful of news organizations to ask to see them under the Freedom of Information Act, which they did. The United Federation of Teachers quickly filed suit.
The Teacher Data Reports are the latest example of a national effort to base teacher tenure and salary on individual performance, as judged by various measures that are always imperfect and contentious. It is also part of a push to remove teachers from the classroom who consistently prove themselves to be substandard. In New York, state, city and union officials agreed on a new evaluation system by which 40 percent of the rating comes from pupils' test scores and 60 percent on principals' observations of teachers' work.
For the time being, parents are left to wrestle with the scores of their children's teachers, and whether to link a bad grade given their son or daughter to the bad grade of their teacher, or whether to shrug off these numbers as a poor way to measure the value of an educator.