Education in the Media
Access to Teacher Evaluations Divides AdvocatesMarch 28, 2012
As the movement to overhaul teacher evaluation marches onward, an emerging question is splitting the swath of advocates who support the new tools used to gauge teacher performance: Who should get access to the resulting information?
As evidenced in recently published opinion pieces, the contours of the debate are rapidly being drawn. Some proponents of using student-achievement data as a component of teacher evaluations, including the philanthropist Bill Gates and Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp, nevertheless believe that such information should not be made widely public. Other figures, like New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, champion the broad dissemination of such data.
Regarding teacher evaluations, the policy landscape for disclosures is also in flux. An Education Week review shows that access to teachers' evaluation results is permissible under open-records laws in at least 18 states plus the District of Columbia, though they are often unclear as to specifics. And only Florida and Michigan have established policies requiring that parents be notified if their child's teacher repeatedly performs poorly on his or her evaluations.
The debate is poised to grow noisier, as news organizations continue to pursue teacher-performance information.
"I think there are very few education policy issues where people's positions are not entirely predictable, and this is one of them," said Timothy Daly, the president of TNTP, formerly the New Teacher Project, a New York City-based teacher-training group that does not support mass publication of individual ratings.
Teachers' unions, meanwhile, have excoriated efforts by the news media to publish "value added" teacher ratings. But the unions, too, are facing the more nuanced question of whether disclosure could be appropriate under other contexts.
Gera L. Summerford, the president of the Tennessee Education Association, said she believes appropriate limits could be set based on the context of the requests.
"I've never had a problem with a parent coming to the office and requesting a private discussion about the evaluation with the principal," she said. "But when you get everything public in the form of numbers in a database, it's just a whole different picture, and I think it's misleading."
Observers trace the interest in public disclosure of evaluations to projects conducted by news outlets in California and New York, in which they secured and published data on teachers.
In 2010, the Los Angeles Times conducted an analysis of student-performance data tied to individual teachers, collected over six years' time. It created a searchable database of teachers' names, with each instructor rated on his or her effectiveness in raising student-test scores.
Shortly after, New York newspapers filed open-records requests for similar data included on the city's "teacher data reports," which were provided only to teachers, principals, and superintendents. Those reports were finally released to the journalists last month.
In what amounts to a bit of irony, the newspapers based the results on value-added data collected by the school districts for purposes other than evaluation. It was precisely for that reason that the data was not protected from disclosure under the states' open-records laws.
Value-added data compare how a teacher's students performed from one year to the next compared with similar students taught by other teachers, holding constant factors like parental income that could skew scores.
Researchers generally agree that value-added measurements capture some degree of the differences in teacher quality. But they also say the estimates contain error and become more volatile when calculated with fewer years of achievement data.
Such limitations have been cited by critics of the papers' decision to publish, particularly in the instance of the New York data reports, some of which were based on small sample sizes containing large margins of error around the calculations. The newspapers, in the meantime, have defended the publication of the scores on the basis that teachers are public employees whose performance is of interest to the public at large.
The issue has divided influential figures in public education, some of whom believe public disclosure could scuttle the appetite among educators for changes to teacher evaluations. That was essentially Mr. Gates' position in an op-ed essay in The New York Times a day before the newspaper made the data available.
"Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming," he wrote. (Mr. Gates co-chairs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps support Education Week's coverage of business and K-12 innovation.)
As a testament to the complexity of the issues, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's thinking on the matter has evolved since 2010. Though he credited the Los Angeles Times project for spotlighting data that, at that time, was going unheeded, Mr. Duncan said he doesn't support publication as a general rule.
"There's not much of an upside there, and there's a tremendous downside for teachers," he said. "We're at a time where morale is at a record low. We need to be strengthening teachers, and elevating them, and supporting them."
States and districts, in the meantime, face a quandary over what they will have to produce if such information is requested by the news media or other individuals.
The review conducted by Education Week indicates that open-records laws in 18 states and the District of Columbia permit access to individual teachers' evaluation results. An additional 19 states do not allow such access, while the other states require teacher or third-party approval.
Florida has allowed the public to access parts of teachers' personnel files under sunshine laws since 1983, though access to them is made available the year after the review is conducted. Very few parents have chosen to look at those records, according to officials in the Hillsborough County, Miami-Dade, and Orange County school systems, three of the largest in the state.
Still, with new evaluation systems coming online, there could be an increased appetite for the information.
In Tennessee, one of the first states using a revamped, statewide teacher-evaluation system, the open-records law is written in such a way so that while the components that make up the evaluation are probably protected from release, teachers' summary evaluation scores—tallied on a 1-to-5 scale—might not be.
Tennessee state schools Superintendent Kevin Huffman said his agency's lawyers would have to look at each request for such information individually. But as a matter of general policy, the state does not believe summary ratings should be published, he added.
"We think the teacher evaluations provide the opportunity for good conversations between teachers and administrators about what effective teaching looks like, and helping teachers get better in areas where they need to get better," Mr. Huffman said. "That is inherently compromised if people are conducting them with an eye toward public consumption, rather than as a tool for performance improvement."
Ms. Summerford, the president of the Tennessee teachers' association, agreed.
"I don't think it was the intent of any of the policymakers during the development of the evaluation system to make it something that's a single number of a teacher that's public," she said. "Frankly, when you reduce anything as complicated in teaching to a single number, it can get misrepresented."
In two states, new laws are upping the ante on disclosure. Under a 2011 Florida law, districts must inform parents whose children are taught by a teacher with a string of subpar evaluations.
Districts appear to be wrestling with how to put that mandate in place and make it fit with the year's delay already set in state policy. "We don't yet have our plan for sharing evaluations with parents," said Linda Cobbe, a spokeswoman for the 195,000-student Hillsborough County school system, which includes Tampa.
Michigan, similarly, will require districts to notify parents if their child is taught by a teacher with two successive unsatisfactory evaluations. That policy, also the result of a recently passed state law, does not go into effect until 2015-16.
Such policies raise fresh questions about whether complex information about teacher performance can be provided to parents in a way that helps improve teaching and learning.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of both national teachers' unions, said he doubts that's possible. The required notification, is "just another mechanism for public flogging," he said. "It's not something that you can put into context."Such policies raise fresh questions about whether complex information about teacher performance can be provided to parents in a way that helps improve teaching and learning.
Yet others see promise in the idea. Though Ms. Kopp of Teach For America doesn't support the newspaper publication of teacher-performance data, she believes providing parents with the information is an idea worth exploring—provided, she said, that error rates associated with value-added methods can be reduced and principals appropriately add context to the data.
"It would give parents information to inform their confidence level that their children will get what they need in the teacher's classroom," Ms. Kopp said, "and it would also provide further incentive for schools to utilize the data to inform their work to develop strong teaching teams."
There is precedent for a degree of parent disclosure. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, explicitly gives parents the right to view the qualifications of their children's teachers. (The law does not address the issue of teacher evaluations.)
Some states are making use of evaluation results in ways that don't hinge on disclosure. Rhode Island, for instance, prohibits students from being assigned to a teacher deemed "ineffective" more than one year in a row. It does not require the notification of parents, nor does state law grant them access to evaluations.
Policies around teacher-performance disclosures appear likely to be unsettled for some time.
Smarting from the fallout of the newspaper reports in New York, teachers' union officials there are now arguing that evaluations include subjective information and therefore should be exempt from disclosure under open-records laws. (See Education Week, March 14, 2012.)
In Tennessee, state lawmakers introduced legislation that would exempt teachers' evaluation scores from disclosure. Mr. Huffman, the state superintendent, said he would likely support the proposal.
"The hard thing is that we're looking at blunt answers to nuanced questions, which makes it tricky," Mr. Huffman said. "Under state law, we don't get to pick whether this is a parent accessing this information compared to a nosy neighbor."
Mr. Daly of TNTP views the debate over disclosure as a side effect of a school culture that is still too hesitant to act on differences in teacher performance."The hard thing is that we're looking at blunt answers to nuanced questions, which makes it tricky," Mr. Huffman said. "Under state law, we don't get to pick whether this is a parent accessing this information compared to a nosy neighbor."
"The urge to know is based on the suspicion that schools are not addressing instructional issues, and that is fueling some of this push," he said. "And it's unfortunate that individual teachers bear the brunt."