Will N.Y. Set a Precedent with Cuomo Evaluation Disclosure Bill?

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 21, 2012 5 min read
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Reservations politicians sometimes have about “negotiating through the media” don’t seem applicable to talks over the disclosure of teacher evaluations in New York state. The Wall Street Journal and other outlets have covered in impressive detail the wrangling over the bill from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and the bill was ultimately approved by lawmakers. But there’s another aspect of the Empire State proposal that’s important to highlight.

Here’s some of the back story. A teacher’s evaluation in New York will include a “composite effectiveness” score, based on 100 points, that takes into account student achievement and other factors. A teacher will also be assigned a “quality rating” (highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective) based on that scoring system.

Cuomo’s legislation will allow parents to view their child’s teacher’s final quality rating and composite effectiveness score and other information, with the teacher’s name attached, but will limit the rest of the public to seeing teacher and principal evaluation data on a school- and district-wide basis, but with no names attached.

Parents won’t simply be handed this information, however, since they will have to specifically request it.

In a March story for Education Week, when a deal about the substance of teacher evaluations was reached, I touched on the fact that one of the biggest lingering issues for Empire State teachers was to what extent those evaluations would be disclosed to the public, especially after the outcry when teacher ratings were released for Gotham City teachers in February.

Aside from the political wrangling over Cuomo’s bill another interesting question is to what extent New York is setting a precedent by setting very specific guidelines over who gets to see what in a teacher’s evaluation.

My colleague Stephen Sawchuk profiled the various ways states do (or don’t) shield teacher evaluation data from public disclosure on March 28 in Education Week. In 18 states and the District of Columbia, Stephen reported, access to the evaluations is allowed under open-records laws. Two states, Florida and Michigan, recently enacted laws requiring parents to be notified if their student’s teacher (or in Michigan, two or more teachers) have a series of bad performance evaluations.

But both those states permit evaluation disclosure as a general matter, under state open-records laws, as the graphic accompanying Stephen’s story shows. That’s different than requiring parents to be notified about low-rated teachers. As Stephen also wrote about on his Teacher Beat blog, Tennessee also passed a law sealing off teacher evaluations from disclosure to the public, allowing only school officials to see them.

Under Cuomo’s bill, New York will also require schools to make “reasonable efforts” to verify that parents, and not just any member of the general public, are seeking the teacher ratings. Parents can receive and review the information “in any manner” and there’s obviously no way for schools and districts to stop parents from organizing and publicizing their own lists of “good” and “bad” teachers from the information they request from schools, with the teachers’ names included.

Lots of parents will probably just keep the information to themselves and abide by the spirit of the law. But the picture statewide could lack uniformity in terms of how parents broadcast or don’t broadcast the evaluations. Could that lead to cries of unfairness from teachers who see their names publicized but see neighboring teachers stay out of the press and off the Internet when it comes to these ratings?

The fear of parents broadly and publicly “outing” teachers with poor ratings and scores is probably exaggerated, argued Marc Porter Magee, president of 50CAN, a nationwide organization with a New York affiliate that advocates for educational choice and accountability and supports Cuomo’s bill. He compared the situation to music downloading, and when companies eventually made it easier to download music legally, even though a few might still abuse the privilege.

“I think that what Cuomo is trying to do is strike a balance,” he said.

In a June 21 statement from New York State United Teachers, the union said the legislation will stop the “shameless media exploitation and distortion of evaluation information.” It also praised the measure for allowing only parents to request “limited composite information.”

“This bill accomplishes that goal and preserves the purpose of evaluations, which is to provide opportunity for continued growth and improvement,” NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi said in the statement.

In a subsequent interview, Iannuzzi initially said that on a scale of 1 to 10 the new law rated a 10 because of its balanced approach, but then revised that rating to a 9.5, noting that there will be “some anxiety” regarding how the issue of keeping teacher ratings private plays out.

“It creates the protection that teachers need to effectively work through their evaluation process in a positive way,” he said of the new law.

He said that the few parents and advocacy groups who would disclose the ratings they receive due to “some agenda that they have” misuse information they receive anyway.

Asked why he thought the ratings would be useful to parents in particular, at first Ianuzzi said parents would appreciate the information because “95 percent” of teachers will be rated highly effective or effective on the new evaluation scale, stressing to parents the quality of nearly all the teachers in the classroom. Asked for the source of that percentage, he then changed that estimate to the “overwhelming majority” of teachers.

Of course, parents in states that permit the public disclosure of evaluation data can already disclose teachers’ ratings if they want in some organized fashion. But ultimately, it appears that New York is the first state, when it comes to general disclosure rules, to legally create two different classes of “the public” when it comes to who can see request to see the quality and effectiveness ratings of teachers by name, although maybe someone can tell me otherwise.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.