Does the public have a right to know how effective public school teachers are?
Not according to the New York City teachers’ union, which is fighting in court to forbid the New York City school district from releasing data on individual teachers’ performance. Five New York news organizations, including the New York Times, have requested the ratings for the 12,000 (out of 80,000 total) teachers whose effectiveness has been graded. The news organizations say that the Freedom of Information law gives them the right to see any government statistics; the United Federation of Teachers, which includes the New York City teachers union, is protesting that the ratings (based on how well a teacher’s students do on standardized tests and controlling for socioeconomic factors) are flawed and releasing them would embarrass teachers.
Note that this battle isn’t about whether teachers’ pay or tenure should be impacted by those ratings; it’s just about whether the public can see those ratings. That the unions view doing so as worth fighting in court is discouraging — and a sign of what school reformers are up against.
In August, the Los Angeles Times, using information from test scores released by the Los Angeles school district, ranked 6,000 individual teachers, controlling for different economic and family backgrounds. It wasn’t an uncontroversial move: the LA teachers union expressed outrage, and urged LA denizens to boycott the Times. When a teacher committed suicide weeks later, the union blamed it on the database — although no evidence has been found that suggests that was what caused the suicide.
Privacy aside, the unions’ biggest argument is that test scores are a lousy way to judge a teacher’s effectiveness. But the preliminary results of study commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released today suggest that test scores are a good indicator of a teacher’s effectiveness.
“In every grade and subject we studied, a teacher’s past success in raising student achievement on state tests was one of the strongest predictors of his or her ability to do it again,” said Vicki Phillips, an education director for the Gates Foundation, according to the Washington Post.
Teachers should be embarrassed if year after year, they fail to teach their students what they need to know. The public deserves to know – and if the release of this data encourages a swelling of support for merit pay, so much the better.