Teaching Profession

Gates Weighs In as New York City Releases ‘Value Added’ Scores

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 23, 2012 3 min read
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New York City will release to news outlets tomorrow “value added” reports that purport to estimate a teacher’s impact on his or her students’ standardized test scores—an action certain to thrust discussion of these measures into the public eye once again, and one that also raises big questions about journalism ethics.

The city teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, has doggedly tried to prevent such a release. But its last legal defense fell last week, when the state’s supreme court declined to hear the union’s appeal to a ruling requiring such a release under open-records laws—with teachers’ names attached.

That means that it will be up to individual news outlets in the state to make a determination about how, and under what conditions, they will use this information or make it available.

This is a more complicated question than you might think. If they do choose to make the information available, with teachers’ names attached, will there be disclosures about the limitations of these data? Will it include margins of error around the results? The Shanker Institute’s Matthew DiCarlo has an interesting discussion about many of these factors.

Stepping into the fray, seemingly as a preventive measure, is Bill Gates. He penned an op-ed in The New York Times that calls publicly revealing individual teachers’ scores “a big mistake.”

“Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming,” Gates writes in the piece.

This is an important development on several accounts. Mr. Gates, through the foundation that bears his name, has been supportive of the use of value-added. His Measures of Effective Teaching project shows that such measures are generally predictive of how teachers will do in other classrooms. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also underwrites coverage of industry and innovation in Education Week.)

Baseline predictivity, of course, is a different question altogether from whether these things should be used for teacher evaluation, and at what weight. Though the Gates Foundation hasn’t yet released its prototype tool, Gates has indicated he supports value-added use to some degree in these systems.

The letter, though, really bangs on the drum on coupling such measures with observations and coaching to help teachers improve specific skills. You could argue, as does Dana Goldstein, that this is evidence of a recent shift in Gates’ thinking about teacher evaluations. To me, the situation seems more an awareness that value-added information can be used wisely or poorly, and that while that divide is still blurry and murky, some lines may have to be drawn given recent events. (Insert your tired metaphor here: Genie out of the bottle, Frankenstein’s monster, etc.)

Of course, as Andy Rotherham of Eduwonk fame points out, there still are many more policy details that need to be fleshed out. Even if you don’t agree with publishing these ratings, is there ever a circumstance in which such information should be made public? It’s worth noting, for instance, that under No Child Left Behind, parents already have a right to know about the qualifications of their child’s teachers (wonks, see Sec. 1111(h)6). Should evaluation results fall under similar requirements?

New York’s teacher-data reports have had a very complicated life. Originally created under an agreement with the UFT, they were supposed to be used only by principals and teachers for improvement purposes, not for any kind of formal accountability purpose. Then, former Chancellor Joel Klein decided to use the information as part of the tenure decisions; and furthermore, the city’s department of education decided that the data fell under open-records requests, both of which brought about lawsuits by the UFT.

Finally, there’s another aspect worth bringing up here. Now that newspapers are getting this information, what’s incumbent on them to consider as they choose whether to release it? What ethical issues are at play?

As one who writes about teachers, I can attest that when The Los Angeles Times did its value-added project last year, which included releasing teacher names and scores, it caused a lot of hand-wringing among education reporters in general. And I don’t think there is a definite consensus yet about how to handle this topic moving forward, either. Columbia School of Journalism’s LynNell Hancock had a story about these issues. She reported that only one New York outlet, GothamSchools, had pledged not to publish the scores with names attached.

Others, like the Gray Lady herself, appear to be moving forward. The New York Times will permit teachers to comment on their scores, which will appear alongside the data.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.