Accountability Opinion

Why Naming Names Is Wrong

By Diane Ravitch — September 27, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

A year ago, the Los Angeles Times created a media sensation when it obtained the names and test scores of thousands of teachers, then commissioned a researcher to rate them in relation to their “effectiveness” in raising test scores. The Times then published online the names and ratings of those thousands of teachers. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saluted the Times for rating teachers and naming names, but the overwhelming majority of testing and evaluation experts thought it was a terrible idea.

The experts understand that evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores is fraught with problems. The ratings are inaccurate (there is a large margin of error) and unstable (a teacher who is effective one year may be ineffective the next year, depending on the composition of his or her classes since students are not randomly assigned). They are plagued with missing data, they ignore the effects of non-school factors. Nor do they acknowledge that students are influenced by multiple teachers, not just one. Critics point out that teachers should be judged by multiple measures, not just by test scores. Even the Los Angeles Times issued the customary warning about using multiple measures, but then proceeded to rate teachers by one measure only: test scores.

Recently, a panel of judges in New York ruled that New York City’s department of education could make public its ratings of teachers based on test scores. This, despite the fact that New York University economist Sean Corcoran produced a study showing that the New York City teacher data reports have a wide margin of error, and that a teacher ranked at the 43rd percentile might actually be at the 15th percentile or the 71st percentile. This ruling was eagerly sought by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and other media outlets, eager to name and shame teachers who didn’t produce higher test scores. The United Federation of Teachers of New York City opposed the release of the ratings. Unless this ruling is overturned, the names and ratings of thousands of New York City teachers will be released to the media. Many other districts are likely to follow in the path of Los Angeles and New York City. (Now that New York City has decided to adopt the state’s not-yet-developed evaluation system, it is unclear whether the city’s department of education will release the names and ratings derived from its own system.)

What’s wrong with “naming names”? Even researchers who support the use of value-added assessment for teacher evaluation have warned that it is wrong to name names.

William Sanders, one of the pioneers of value-added assessment, told an interviewerthat the method could identify those at the extremes—the best and the worst—but “can you distinguish within the middle? No, you can’t, not even with the most distinguished, value-added process that you can bring to the problem.”

Dan Goldhaber, an economist who has written extensively on value-added methodology, wrote an opinion piece in which he strongly opposed the naming of individual teachers. Aside from technical objections, he argued, “I cannot think of a profession in either the public or private sector where individual employee performance estimates are made public in a newspaper.”

I recently had an email exchange with Thomas Kane, the Harvard economist who advises the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on these issues, and he told me he opposes the public release of names linked to evaluations. I asked if I might quote him, and he authorized me to say exactly what he told me. He wrote:

My reason for opposing public release of teacher-level value-added data is to preserve some minimal level of privacy in the supervisor-employee relationship, to maintain some space for teachers to brainstorm with their peers and their supervisors about ways to improve. I'm sure many Americans would not want their performance appraisals published in the newspapers or to have their supervisors write a letter to the editor about their latest annual review. Without some privacy, people will not have the 'space' to have an honest conversation about strengths and weaknesses, areas where they are working to improve. I treat the feedback I get from peer reviewers (on journal articles, for instance) and from employees (in the form of confidential employee surveys) very seriously, and use them as a chance to improve. I'm not sure I could do that if they were published in the newspaper. I'm also not sure referees, supervisors, and employees would be as honest if they knew their comments would be made public."

One other view comes from an experienced high school principal in Long Island, New York. In an email, Carol Burris wrote that she can already envision the parade of parents who will come to her office to demand that their child be placed only in the class of a “highly effective teacher” and to reject assignment to anyone with a lesser rating. She can already hear the parent who says “My child’s IEP (individualized education plan) says she should have only a highly effective teacher.” Then there will be the attorney who wants to sue the district because his client’s son didn’t get into Harvard; the district is at fault, he will say, because the student didn’t have three “highly effective” teachers in a row.

If we listen to the experts and to experienced educators, we would reject this effort to humiliate and shame teachers. If we listened to those who know, the current national “reform” movement would wither and disappear.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.