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Release of N.Y. teacher ratings renews debate

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The New York City Department of Education’s release earlier this year of teacher performance ratings has become the latest focal point in the debate about how to measure teaching abilities and whether that information should be public.

Education reform advocates say teachers need to be held accountable, while others say the ratings are flawed, misinform the public and unfairly punish teachers.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District released teacher rankings as part of a story by the Los Angeles Times. Although now two of the country’s largest districts have released their information, it’s not clear yet whether others will. 

New York’s teacher ratings, released in February, are based on a technique called “value-added” assessment. The method predicts a student’s success based on factors such as previous test scores and lines up how well students actually do with the prediction. If the student’s test scores exceed the prediction, the teacher’s value-added score goes up. If they fall short, the score goes down.

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In recent years, many states and districts across the country have adopted value-added assessment in response to President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, which requires revising teacher evaluation methods to receive federal funds.

But few have taken the extra step of publicly disclosing the rankings. David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, said the controversy around the Los Angeles and New York school districts might be a deterrent.

“In California, that, rightly so, has made people very gun shy about this,” he said.

Advocates of disclosing the rankings say more information better equips parents to make decisions. The information allows them to hold poor teachers and schools accountable, said Josh King, general counsel of Avvo, a website that evaluates lawyers and doctors, who helped fight for the release of ratings for those groups.

“Parents are really clamoring for this type of information,” King said.

A recent poll of New York City voters taken after the release of teacher ratings there seems to support his assessment. The poll, conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, showed that 59 percent of voters who were parents of children in public schools supported the release, while 36 percent opposed it.

King said critics who attack the value-added assessments as flawed are misguided.

“You can’t wait for perfection in any system because you’re never going to get anything done,” he said.

Publicly releasing the rankings has met heavy resistance from some – most prominently teachers unions – who say the ratings unfairly characterize a teacher as good or bad.

California Teachers Association spokesman Frank Wells said the 325,000-member union hasn’t felt any push yet to disclose teacher ratings in California school districts.

Many education experts agree that the ratings should not be released to the public. Part of the issue is what the ratings don’t take into account, said Xiaoxia Newton, an assistant professor of education at UC Berkeley who researches value-added measures.

Using value-added scores to make judgments about whether a teacher is good or bad fails to take in several other possible measurements, like expert observations, peer reviews and teacher portfolios, Newton said.

Plank agreed that many factors affect a teacher’s performance.

“At this point, we have no measures that give us a reliable measure of teaching,” Plank said. “Maybe the teacher had a bad day, maybe all of the kids had the flu, maybe she was planning on getting to that lesson next week and the test came back this week, maybe she’s an extroverted teacher and has a quiet class.”

Newton pointed out that the ratings usually are based on controversial standardized tests, which many criticize as inaccurate measures of students’ performance.

She called releasing ratings with such known flaws “irresponsible.”

But very few believe that value-added scores alone should be used to measure teacher effectiveness. Both the New York City Department of Education and the LA Times have stated that the score is just one of many that should be used when judging teachers.

Still, the public might not be able to take the ratings with “a grain of salt,” Newton said.

The hope, Plank said, is that media attention will spur the creation of better standards for teacher effectiveness, regardless of whether that information is released to the public.

“I think what it’s done is to accelerate the interest of districts, certainly, multiple constituencies and the research community in finding reliable ways to measure teacher performance,” he said.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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