Hopelessly Muddled – Needlessly Public: Teacher Evaluations Need to be Treated with Caution

Today, teacher data reports for some 32 charter schools will be released to the public, following release of TDRs for district teachers as part of the Teacher Data Initiative. There are two distinct issues worth commenting on: the particularities of the charter school data and the errors therein, and the general issue of public release of such data.

As to the charter teacher data, it comprises a small subset of charter schools operating in New York City – only 32 out of 136. Within that data set, only four charter schools have TDRs for more than a single year. As a result, any effort at making comparisons between district and charter teachers really isn’t possible.

The quality of this data is also considerably worse for charter school teachers than for district teachers. NYC DOE tracks less information about charter schools, so it was less able to accurately link teachers to their students. Even more importantly, charter schools had little incentive to verify this data since they weren’t using it for decisions about tenure (which charter schools don’t provide).

The bottom line? It is impossible to make heads or tails of this data.

As to making the data public, I won’t rehearse all the arguments for and against. To me, the critical question is this: will the public release of individual teacher data (even if it becomes more accurate over time) make it more or less likely in the long term that talented people go into the profession and stay there?

I think if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we don’t know what the effect would be. What I do know is that I hear a lot more teachers (even ones with good reports) saying that they don’t like the public release of TDRs than I hear teachers supporting it. It’s a market signal that, at the very least, must be carefully considered.

I also think it’s clear by now that schools can benefit by tracking individual teachers’ performance, without making that data public. Ineffective teachers can be denied tenure or fired without names becoming public—it would require an agreement with the union and a state law that sets sound background rules (together with a release of reports showing whether this is in fact happening overall). The elements for this are either in place or will be in place. That’s all to the good.

The other lever for school improvement, parental pressure—either by voicing anger or by withdrawing children—is something we absolutely support. But that doesn’t require publicizing names either. It can happen if overall school reports are released that show the aggregate numbers of high-performing and low-performing teachers in a building. Those are the numbers that will spur reform (unless you are willing to have parents make hiring and firing decisions for individual teachers, something that almost no one supports).

On balance, I’m not persuaded that having public individual TDRs helps us with the only thing that matters: improving teacher quality and student results.

James Merriman

Chief Executive Officer, New York City Charter School Center