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It’s Our Secret! The NYC Teacher Experiment

By Eduwonkette — January 22, 2008 2 min read

The NY Times reported yesterday on an ongoing experiment on teacher effectiveness in NYC schools. Principals in the treatment group (140 schools) receive extensive value-added information on each teacher, and then are asked to evaluate the teachers. Principals in the control group do not receive these reports but also provide evaluations of their teachers. As far as I can tell, the goal is to determine how principals’ evaluations are affected by having access to value-added data. By the summer, the NYC DOE will decide how these data will be used, and Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf has even suggested releasing individual teachers’ effectiveness data publicly. You can watch this video for more information about the experiment.

While much could be said about the challenges of estimating reliable value-added measures for teachers or the move to use test scores as the primary measure of assessing teacher effectiveness, I’ll save those for later. (See more posts about measuring teacher effectiveness here.) Instead, I want to talk about the issue of research ethics in scientific experiments. It turns out that many teachers in participating schools have not been notified of the study.

Secret experiments have an odious history in science. The most notable example is the Tuskegee experiment, in which African-American men with syphilis were recruited into a study but not told of the purpose of the study or notified of their diagnosis. Their disease was left untreated so that researchers could track its progression. Once this experiment broke publicly, Congress passed legislation that, many commissions and administrative changes later, ultimately required universities receiving federal grants to form Institutional Review Boards to oversee all research. Human subjects policies require university researchers to receive the consent of all subjects and to make them aware of the potential risks of the study.

My point is not that the NYC experiment’s secrecy is the moral equivalent of the Tuskegee Experiments. The Department of Education is not bound by any university’s human subjects policy, and it is their right to examine whatever data they please to produce new knowledge. (Note that the university researchers involved are bound by IRB standards if they plan to publish off of these data.) But the Hippocratic Oath of the research community - that subjects should be aware that they are part of a study - has been grossly violated. And it does not help the reputation or future of “scientifically based research” in education when studies are conducted in secret. Even if this was not a research study, a decent boss notifies employees when they change the criteria on which employees are evaluated.

Where is this going next? Notably, Cerf’s suggestion that individual teachers’ data should be publicly released has precedent in New York. The New York State Department of Health started collecting similar data on doctors’ effects on mortality in the early 1990s. In 1991, New York Newsday filed a Freedom of Information request, which forced the Department of Health to publicly release doctor level data. Since then, individual doctors’ data have been publicly reported. Assuming the same Freedom of Information statutes apply to education, it may not be long before we can examine the “value-added scores” of NYC teachers while waiting for the C train to show up.

Back to data-driven decision making tomorrow.

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