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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 11/12/2010

What’s wrong with releasing names and scores?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture. Her education writing has appeared in numerous places, including Education Week, the Core Knowledge Blog, GothamSchools, and American Educator.

By Diana Senechal
As a teacher on hiatus writing a book, I have been dismayed by reports that the New York City Department of Education plans to release teachers’ names and value-added ratings to the press. I thought that the outcry over the Los Angeles Times’ publication of scores — even from supporters of value-added assessment — would dissuade other districts and newspapers from taking similar action; I was wrong. Is this sheer stubbornness on the part of school leaders, or do they not understand the harm this would cause?

Opponents of the plan point to the fallibility of the ratings and the damage that their publication is bound to cause. Supporters argue that parents and taxpayers should have access to the information. Three points deserve additional emphasis.

First, given the fallibility of the scores, both education department officials and reporters should consider whether the benefits of releasing the ratings outweigh the possible harm. Second, there is a vast difference between releasing scores to school communities (or even taxpayers) and releasing them to the world at large. Third, the department should consider the example it is setting for schools and for the students themselves.

Scholars have repeatedly pointed to the unreliability of the scores, but it bears repeating just how unreliable they are. For one thing, there is an inherent limit on the number of teachers rated “high”: they must score above the 95th percentile in comparison with other teachers. In other words, it is impossible in the current formula for even 10 percent of the teachers of a given grade and subject to rank “high.”

Even if test scores were a reliable measure of teacher quality, many fine teachers would simply not make the percentile cut and would be labeled “above average” or lower. The scores don’t tell how a teacher is doing; they tell (with a great margin of error) how a teacher compares to other teachers. Even there, they mislead.

Value-added ratings presume that the tests reflect what is being taught and what should be taught. This presumption is false.

New York City does not have a true English Language Arts curriculum. For years, the majority of K-8 public schools have been following the Balanced Literacy program, which focuses on strategies, not on specific literary works or grammatical topics. Some schools implement the program rigidly, others loosely, some thoughtfully, some crudely; some combine it with a curriculum.

Each of these options is potentially compatible with the New York State standards and tests. The tests require no specific literary knowledge beyond a few terms (e.g., metaphor, alliteration), and the rubrics are relatively forgiving of orthographic, grammatical, and logical errors. Thus, teachers offering profoundly different kinds of literature instruction could receive similar value-added scores. The scores obscure substantive differences among schools, differences that affect the content and quality of students’ education.

Given these and other considerations, it is clear that the release of ratings is likely to misrepresent teachers’ work and harm their reputations. Reporters should seek to minimize harm, as should the education department. The argument that “it’s for the kids” doesn’t work; we don’t want to encourage kids to do reckless and hurtful things, do we?

If The New York Times or another newspaper releases the ratings and names, anyone in the world can look up a teacher’s score. That includes the teacher’s children, parents, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, Internet acquaintances, potential employers, colleagues, ex-colleagues, dates, former classmates, former teachers, students—anyone.

Nothing will prevent a vicious or resentful person from re-posting individual teachers’ scores on Facebook pages and blogs. Nothing will prevent students from taunting teachers over their ratings. Granted, this could happen even if the ratings were released to school communities only, but it would be more contained.

Beyond all of this, the publishing of names and ratings sets a bad example for all. No matter how many disclaimers and explanations accompany the scores, teachers will be identified as “above average,” “average,” “below average,” and so forth.

It is one thing to regard value-added scores in combination with other information; it is another to broadcast them by themselves. Is this the spirit that we want to encourage in schools? Is this the kind of thinking we expect of students?

Ratings are ubiquitous today; they pervade the Internet, where even a comment on a blog gets a tally of thumbs up and thumbs down, and an individual’s name appears with the number of “fans” he or she has drawn. Schools should resist this trend; they should show students the way to complex understandings of their world. The education department should set an example in this regard.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 12, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  diana senechal, la times, la times teachers, new york city schools, new york times, new york times teachers, nyc doe, school reform, schools and teachers, teacher assessment, teacher evaluation, teachers, the los angeles times, value added, value added assessment  
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Next: A narcissistic approach to education reform

Comments

Some sensible thoughts. One additional implication of the percentile rankings: If one's pay increase is based in significant part on one's comparison to other teachers, one has a direct incentive to sabotage fellow teachers' performance in order to boost one's own ranking and, hence, boost one's pay. If you can't improve your own teaching, you can possibly worsen others. While I doubt most would take it that far, I'm sure this dynamic would inhibit the creation of collaborative learning environment among teachers that research shows is essential to improving schools. At a minimum, it makes a teacher think twice about helping out a colleague who is struggling. Rankings such as these means that your colleagues' success directly comes out of your pocket. Who wants that?

Posted by: reedd1 | November 12, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

reedd1,

Yes, a major point that is usually overlooked.

Here's another:Administrators could always stack the deck, too. Don't like a highly educated, highly effective rocker of boats, then give her a ton of troubled non-intentional learners.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 12, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Very insightful article, wonderfully written. Thank you Diana for sharing this.

Our children to be surrounded by adult role models who demonstrate respect for each other (at home and at school). Referring to any teacher's life's work by using snippets of incomplete data is bullying, demoralizing, and disrespectful.

I too keep hoping (and praying)someone will come to their senses after the LA tragedy.

Thanks again-great article.

Posted by: rsolnet | November 12, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Hume1,

You can be sure the administrators will give the more troublesome students to the more highly paid educators, or to the ones that speak up.

Duncan is putting a weapon into the hands of administrators to harm teachers.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 12, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

These tests don't test teacher effectiveness, but they do test student success on the test itself (not really on anything else). Why, then, aren't we rreleasing the test scores with the names of the students? Anyone up for that? I didn't think so.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 12, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I think they should publish teachers' names and test scores as long as they also publish the students' names and scores as well. Let's see how far THAT goes!

Posted by: UrbanDweller | November 12, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Oops, I meant intentional non-learners. I have to get my education terminology correct.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 12, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

There's another dimension to making the scores public: it's intended to make a public, voyeuristic spectacle of shame and humiliation.

Why aren't any other groups of public servants targeted like this? Why not target public health officials or social workers or policemen or firefighters? What's different about teachers that some people think they should wear scarlet letters?

Posted by: aed3 | November 12, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Duncan has a big smile and a nice suit - but underneath that smiling face is a malicious personality. He's a wolf in sheep's clothing, and is out to inflict the maximum damage he can upon teachers - with Obama's whole hearted support.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 12, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Urban Dweller, surprisingly, sets up public education achievement as a (vicious) zero-sum game between students and teachers:

"I think they should publish teachers' names and test scores as long as they also publish the students' names and scores as well. Let's see how far THAT goes!"

One would have expected a self-proclaimed "very effective" educator to have a little less teacher-centricity and a lot more concern for The Children. Why take it out on them, UD? Why not let parents and other taxpayers see what they get for their money?

Too many teachers stoke the fires that result in less respect for, and criticism of, teachers.

The majority of Americans appear to be past the point of cheering for the teachers when the skills and the commitment to educate are not all that apparent in too many educators.

Posted by: axolotl | November 12, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Sarah,

I doubt you even come close to representing "the majority of Americans."

You are living in your own grizzled, little mythic world. Your rhetoric is grandiose in style but lacking in substance. In reality, you are the doomsayer, standing on the street corner, carrying a pathetic placard that says "The Children" on one side and "I represent America" on the other. You yell out your hatred, and some people in business suits stop by, but most Americans pass you by without even a casual glance. You claim that the world will end, yet here we are. When all is said and done, you are a primitive little person who dearly holds onto a mythic belief system that YOU helped invent.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 12, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

If student test scores are to be part of a teacher's evaluation then it seems to me that they are part of the personnel file. Since when are people's personnel files up for public scrutiny? Perhaps if students had both incentive to do well and consequences for not doing well on these tests, the scores would be better. I've proctored MSA's and I can tell you that some kids are so sick of taking tests that they just bubble in anything. These are kids who know the material but aren't showing it on the test. It's insane.

Posted by: musiclady | November 12, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Oh, David DHume1, you ignorant **ut. One quivers with each limp label you struggle to apply. A nonplayer in anyone's world. A legend in your own mind, it frightens you to have to make any sense to anyone. Best of luck.

Posted by: axolotl | November 12, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

No struggle at all. And I seem to recall that you already called me an "ignorant **ut." Be a little more original next time.

Continue to live the myth, Sarah.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 12, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

to axolotl: I didn't set that up...our "reformers" have created that kind of vicious environment. I still can't understand why someone as seemingly as intelligent as you continues to ignore the data and the experts. Test scores are NOT reliable--that's a fact.

If scores are published, then we should be publishing data on ALL our public servants: police officers, firefighters, government workers, etc.

I disagree with you about the public: I don't think the general public blames teachers for poor student performance. Most adults are able to see the real issue in public education: poverty and home environment. If public education is such a mess then we'd have no students graduating with any skills. The fact is that the vast majority of public schools do a very good job at educating kids. Its the public schools in poor urban and rural areas which perform poorly. There is a definite correlation between poverty and student achievement. You can hide your head in the sand all you want but the data and the evidence and the solid proof won't go away.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | November 13, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

"The majority of Americans appear to be past the point of cheering for teachers..."

How untrue that statement is! In fact a 2010 Gallup Poll shows that 71% of the American adults and 78% of the parents of school aged children have trust and confidence in teachers. In my state this is the second highest percentage for any profession, next to the clergy and ahead of physicians.

As one poster said, sometimes these polls aren't 100% reliable. Well, just ask your friends and neighbors. Most will say they "love" their children's schools and the children "just love" Miss Jones. As for me, even when I thought my sons' teachers were mediocre, I still had great respect for them. That probably has a lot to do with my children's success in school. If you want your own kids to fail, just trash their school and their teacher. I guarantee that will work.

Our nation's capital has given us a good idea of what will happen with the current "reform." Once it hits Joe Citizen's neighborhood school and teacher, it will fail and all the "reformers" will be sent packing.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 13, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Linda RT: well then, thanks. It seems you can justifiably claim that teacher adoration swamps the alleged bashing. Congrats. Some people always thought the protestations about bashing were overstated, over-amplified, and over-emphasized. Teachers protesteth too much.

David: it's more than four hours, and you need to seek immediate medical attention.

Posted by: axolotl | November 13, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Sarah,

Nope, I didn't catch your disease. Trust me, I was worried because of our associations with each other, but my doctor assures me that you can't catch cretinism from just words alone. How thoughtful. You were truly concerned for the first time in your life, not just feigning concern.

Keep working on your myth with a religious fervor, Sarah.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 13, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Axolotl:

I was not "protesting." I was defending against your statement that the majority of Americans are past cheering for teachers. That's just not true and that's basically why reform will be designed and determined by citizens. This is still the USA.

At Miramonte School in South Gate,CA, where a teacher committed suicide after he was publicly labeled as "least effective," only five out of 35 teachers earned ratings of "average" in a school where most of the students are learning English. No teacher scored above that. Sadly, the teacher who died was beloved by both parents and students. Other teachers described him as totally dedicated and hardworking.

Competent principals always asked about student progress whenever I was evaluated (I mean, what else would be more important than that?) but no teacher wants to be evaluated on a standardized test that has a high correlation with socioeconomic status. After all, these tests are normed on "typical" native English speakers from "average" homes. In simple terms, burned-out "Mr. Jones" of Scarsdale would almost always get "highly effective" while "Miss Smith" of DC would almost always be "ineffective" no matter what she did. While it's true that value added methods try to control variables outside the school, testing experts tell us this method is not ready to be used to evaluate teachers. In the meantime, there's nothing to prevent an administrator from looking at student test scores. In fact she's been able to do this for many years in all states.

Ax: You need to ask yourself why you harbor so much hostility towards teachers. Also, how can your attitude possibly help children; your own and others?

Poor parental attitude correlates very highly with low student achievement. Just check out the research.

If you want to improve education, please help support teachers, the people who elect to be in our classrooms. Nothing will happen without their cooperation.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 13, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Linda RT -- the best thing we can continue to do is support public education. That's notably bigger than just "supporting teachers," which is clearly your focus.

You must have been a successful teacher and deserve thanks for that service. And if you are proudly teacher-centric, that's fine.

But all of us with a stake in our DC schools cannot afford to be that narrow minded.

Ineffective teachers remain more than a negligible percentage here. And they were tolerated by all superintendents until Rhee. When she found well over 90 percent of teachers were somehow rated as very good or better, even when the students were suffering education malpractice and not achieving much, she took necessary action.

Those who continue to tolerate or shelter the ineffectives are condemning more generations of The Children to a hard life. They don't deserve that.

That's why teachers deserve scrutiny, feedback, and to be exposed to job security and insecurity that depends on their performance. That's the fact of worklife in large swaths of the American work force, even the professions that teachers love to be compared with.

No one is going to wait many years for a perfect eval system or more "research" to make things better. We are waaayyy too late as it is.

Posted by: axolotl | November 13, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

It is bizarre to me how I should be judged on whether or not a student puts forth effort to learn the material being taught. judge me in countless other ways, but don't judge me on conditions beyond my control.

Posted by: chicogal | November 13, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

Ax:

You need to study the history of education in the USA. You'll find that administrators have long had the ability to hire, evaluate and fire teachers. Instead, they granted tenure to almost everyone, rarely visited classrooms and gave "highly effective" to over 90% of all teachers. Why do you think they did this? Who is to blame?

If you don't have time to read, just review Rhee's tenure. Why did she continue the shameful practice of hiring inexperienced teachers for the most challenging schools? This practice has been going on for many years and is probably the primary reason for the problems that you cite. Why did she continue it when she had the opportunity to hire really good teachers who might have stayed in DC for many years?

If you really want to improve education for all our children, come over to the side of the people who elect to be with them each day.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 13, 2010 10:58 PM | Report abuse

Linda RT -- the problem is teachers like "chicogal" -- the last comment just above hers. She shuns any responsibility for education, or so it seems.

Posted by: axolotl | November 16, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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