What’s wrong with releasing names and scores?
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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| 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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