Publishing teacher evaluation scores with names splits open government debate

Monday, March 19, 2012 at 1:45am

On its own accord, the Tennessee Department of Education won’t publish controversial teacher evaluation scores alongside the names of the instructors, but some of this information could be available via open records requests this summer.

Yet until a media outlet in Tennessee follows the formula from other states, cites the state’s open records laws and asks for the updated personnel files of the state’s 65,000 teachers, it’s unclear which areas of the complicated 1-through-5 scoring rubric would be accessible to the public.

And that raises an ethics question. Whether a media outlet should actually post evaluation data and teacher names is as contentious as the evaluation system itself. Even open government advocates are torn on the issue. It’s a debate that has created a firestorm elsewhere, most recently in New York, whereThe New York Times, after a long legal battle with city schools, obtained and posted teacher evaluations in an online database.

In an interview with The City Paper, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, nearing his first full year in the position, dismissed as “incorrect” media reports that his department planned to publish evaluation scores attached to teachers’ names. The department is, of course, obligated to review open records requests on teacher personnel files, and would review them with state attorneys, he said.

“If news organizations or others make open records requests, we’ll have to review the requests, and figure out if we need to hand over that information, which could lead news organizations to publish that information,” Huffman said.

But an important caveat will determine which evaluation data in Tennessee actually receives sunshine.

Under the evaluation system, each teacher across the state is assigned a score ranging from 1 through 5. Administrators arrive at that figure by weighing three categories. Half the score is based on in-class observations by principals. Student achievement accounts for another 15 percent. The remaining 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation stems from what educators call value-added data, which measures a student’s progress over time, from one year to the next. According to state law, as Huffman pointed out, value-added data is protected from public records, complicating what state officials would be willing to publicize.

“Part of the challenge is that because value-added scores are protected by law, we can’t give out value-added scores, and we can’t give out information that will allow people to ultimately figure out the value-added scores,” Huffman said. “We would just have to look at every request that came in, because I think the nuances are tricky.”

In short, a teacher’s in-class observation score could very well be made a public record. But the value-added portion, more than one-third of a teacher’s overall scores, would not. That creates a grey area: The state wouldn’t hand over the final 1-through-5 score, along with remaining 65 percent of that score’s basis. If it did, someone could simply pull out a calculator to determine that shielded value-added portion.

At issue are the scores stamped on every teacher in Tennessee in the state’s new teacher evaluation system, implemented in the current school year in Tennessee and part of a growing trend nationwide. Performance evaluations have emerged as a hot-button education issue in Tennessee, with many teachers deriding the approach as flawed, unfair, time-consuming and methodical. 

In other parts of the country, obtaining and publishing these scores — and the identities of the teachers who received each one — have proven contentious. The first news outlet to do so was the Los Angeles Times, which in 2010 overcame resistance from teachers’ unions to publicize evaluation scores, accompanied by teacher names, on the newspaper’s website.

In February, The New York Times published scores of New York City teachers after a failed legal effort by the United Federation of Teachers and despite the opposition of many educators. Today, a parent, teacher or student — anyone for that matter — can go on a Times-administered site called SchoolBook and find the evaluation scores for every teacher in the city. Some rankings are high. Some are abysmally low.

For now, Huffman is urging media outlets in Tennessee against taking up this tactic, saying that publicizing the information would yield nothing more than gossip material that isn’t in the interests of teachers.

“What I have indicated and continue to believe is that news organizations shouldn’t do this,” Huffman said. “I don’t think it’s in the public’s interest to publish teacher names and evaluation scores next to them. That’s not something that people would willingly do with the private sector. It’s not a good management practice to put out evaluation results of employees.”

While Huffman presents a case for protecting teachers, the evaluation system itself has drawn heavy criticism from many classroom instructors. Teachers’ unions in Tennessee lost the battle to defeat it, and they don’t want the scores publicized.

“There’s a lot of issues with why that shouldn’t happen,” said Stephen Henry, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union. “First, it’s using an evaluation system that at this point has yet to even be proven reliable. Second of all, it’s using it for a purpose for which it wasn’t intended.

“There’s also a problem in using this 1-through-5 rubric,” he said. “The state department of education considers a ‘3’ to be a good solid teacher, yet when a parent sees on a scale of 1 through 5 a ‘3,’ that’s to them average. There’s a misunderstanding in even reading the scale.”



Stakeholders who might seem to gain from the release of a teacher evaluation score are parents, who could presumably use that information as insight into the competence of their children’s instructors. But even parents aren’t uniformly in favor of making such data available to everyone.

“I’m kind of on the fence about that in terms of privacy,” said Erica Lanier, chair of Metro’s Parent Advisory Council. She said perhaps a “decent middle ground” could be to open the scores to parents who have concerns about a particular teacher, but only after other avenues were exhausted.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to put all of that information out there,” she said.

Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register, a proponent of the evaluation system, said posting scores undermines its intent: “If you think about it in terms of a constructive process, focusing on best practice, of really having productive conversations on how do you improve practices, then publishing a teacher’s name in a paper is sort of counter to that,” he said.

In New York and Los Angeles, the driving forces behind publicizing evaluation scores were newspapers. Some open government advocates say scores and teacher names should be subject to the public’s eye, but only in a way that shows journalistic integrity.

“Obviously, it should be a public record,” said Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association. “Government should make it as easy to get that information as it possibly can. It can be an ordeal sometimes at the state to get a public record request completed.

“But to just publish the evaluation number and a teacher’s name without there being some explanation of why a score might be low, or without talking to the teacher to get some explanation from the teacher, would be journalistically questionable,” he said.

Others in the field struggle with the idea of publishing the information at all.

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said his organization hasn’t established an official position on the issue. Sure, evaluation scores are public documents, he said, but numbers should be publicized carefully. He called the evaluation system a “brand-new ballgame,” and said he isn’t entirely sure what the scores really say about teachers.

“Personally, I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” Flanagan said of publishing the scores. “Number one, why do we want to know the teachers’ scores unless those scores are used in a way to determine whether the teacher will continue teaching?

“I don’t think anyone has really thought this issue through to the point where they can say with any kind of authority that this is not going to hurt anybody,” he said. 

9 Comments on this post:

By: tomba1 on 3/19/12 at 3:09

This seems to me to be a terrible idea which could further degrade the education system for no real reason other than to give some media person something to toot about. As a society we must stop going after educators in such a potentially destructive manner. Most are appropriately educated and trained with Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate degrees which indicate their commitment to their profession. Many of the new ones come into the field with far less credentials, training and commitment but much more fanfare.

There are personnel, administrative, and budget problems for sure. But these are management problems and are no different from those of any other public or private entity. We have elected officials to manage these functions on our behalf. If the system is broken, we have, once again, elected the wrong people..

So, if we allow the media to take us down this slippery slope to help them create something they might consider "news", it seems to me that it should apply to all and not just education professionals. That's fair to all. The only exceptions being elected officials since the voters perform those reviews at the polls. Beyond that, every government employee and appointee or anybody who has dealings with government from either the public or private sector should be subject to the same open records disclosure. That would include banks, utility providers, news media, unions, food and fuel providers ...etc. any business. That concept is no different than metro's procurement requirements regarding private contractors and their personnel policies.

Don't the taxpayers have a right to know that the recipients of our tax dollars are performing their jobs in an efficient manner? Well I guess the media is right; eventually they will be after everybody's performance review. This is insane.

After all, this is about the stewardship of our public dollars, isn't it? Or is it?

By: Nashvillesanity on 3/19/12 at 5:39

There is only one option here: publishing the records.

Teachers, like it or not, are public employees. If our government has chosen a method of evaluation, whether or not that system is effective or ineffective, the data should be made available to its citizens.

There isn't any expectation of privacy when your employer, the citizens of Tennessee, performs an evaluation of your job performance. There is entirely too much talk these days in Tennessee government about keeping things confidential to the people out of fear we won't be responsible with the information. (See Haslam wanting to keep private businesses who recieve public grants and tax credits confidential.)

This is data that despite educators objections to the process, public interpretation, etc. should be available for public consumption. After all, we want transparency from government correct? That means public information is public.

By: tomba1 on 3/19/12 at 7:19

There you go ...

" Teachers, like it or not, are public employees. If our government has chosen a method of evaluation, whether or not that system is effective or ineffective, the data should be made available to its citizens."

So are you suggesting applying the same evaluation disclosure to ALL government employees at ALL levels of government?? Do you include government appointees as well?

If not, then you're focusing only on 1 group of employees for your own purposes and that is not the transparency we should expect or condone from our government. Oh, we can try to hide behind the banner of transparency and advocate for this and other selective disclosures; but, unless the disclosures apply to all, it is more like a "witch hunt" than transparency in government.

By: govskeptic on 3/19/12 at 8:01

If administrators are going to ignore the information and parents have
no access then is there really any purpose in the cost of assembling
of these assessments?

By: pswindle on 3/19/12 at 9:53

How true are the evaluations? It depends on how the evaluators feel about the teacher. You have to only grade them on their work not personality. There is too much at risk at this point to publish the results. There is a lot to be worked out before this should be done. If this attack on teachers continue, there will be such a shortage of teachers that the systems cannot survive. Is this what they are trying to do? Do they want to educate only the rich? It is time for the Legislative to educate themselves and let the professional educators make some of these decisions.

By: Loner on 3/20/12 at 5:36

Jesse Register sez; "If you think about it in terms of a constructive process, focusing on best practice, of really having productive conversations on how do you improve practices, then publishing a teacher’s name in a paper is sort of counter to that,”

This Register character is so full of intelligent-sounding buzzwords and catchy phrases that his speech is intelligible only to himself and very few others...this man is a phony....replace him with somebody who speaks plain English, not esoteric and arcane gibberish.

By: Loner on 3/20/12 at 5:52

Why single out public school teachers for public evaluation and public scrutiny like this?

We should publish evaluations of the policemen first, before we start in on harassing the teachers.

Let's evaluate the doctors and lawyers too...public postings about their competence ratings etc.

Should we evaluate the competence of our lawmakers in this same fashion?

Let's investigate, evaluate and publish the findings on the preachers and priests too....let's not leave your mailman out of the cross-hairs...let's evaluate them too.

Evaluations and public humiliation is a slippery slope....if we start with the lawmakers themselves, these goofy ideas quickly fade away.

By: Loner on 3/20/12 at 6:03

Has anyone investigated, evaluated and published the findings on Mr. Jesse Register? Let's do some peer review on this smooth operator....let's test this guy.....let's air his dirty laundry...what do the teachers and students really think about Jesse Register? How do the parents feel about his competency?

Mister Register is an advocate for evaluation and transparency, let us start the process by putting him under the microscopes of peer review and public scrutiny.

By: govskeptic on 3/20/12 at 6:27

Loner: I would point out we are talking about Tenn Teachers and Principals,
not those you have up in NY. We know all in that state are the smartest,
well paid, and most competent in the nation, and their rich retirements
and benefits should be the same in all the states. Did I miss anything?