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Beth Fertig Headshot

Do Teacher Ratings Matter to Parents?

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New York City wants to give the media thousands of teacher evaluations that are based largely on student test scores. Some 12,000 teachers have been rated with these "teacher data reports" in a pilot program to see which teachers are most effective at raising student achievement.

Researchers call these "value-added" measurements. The Obama administration is encouraging districts to measure teachers in part with student test scores, though many academics say there's still no perfect system. The Los Angeles Times created an uproar in August when it released the names of 6,000 teachers it had rated with test scores.

New York City's teachers union went to court to block its ratings from being released and a judge has scheduled a hearing for late November. The United Federation of Teachers argues that city agreed to keep the names of the teachers private if asked for any ratings by the media. But the city claims recent Freedom of Information requests make that argument null and void, though in the past it's released the ratings to publications and researchers without naming any teachers.

The union's other argument is that these ratings are "unreliable, often incorrect, subjective analyses dressed up as scientific facts." The reports rely on state test scores that the union doesn't trust, after New York state changed its scoring system this year to make the tests harder to pass. The union also says the formula for rating a teacher -- and placing him or her in a certain percentile of effectiveness -- is highly confusing, and won't be properly understood by parents. Mayor Bloomberg's administration says parents have a right to know. The city uses a formula to determine how well the teacher's class performed on state math and reading tests compared to how well those same students were expected to score based on past performance. The formula is supposed to isolate the teacher's effectiveness by screening out factors such as poverty, special needs, class size, and gender.

All of which raises a question: do parents even care about these evaluations? I spoke with a handful of public school parents while covering the lawsuit for WNYC. While my survey was very small (fewer than 10 individuals) the responses weren't surprising. Parents who were satisfied with their schools weren't clamoring for the reports. But those who weren't as confident were much more curious.

Virginia Diaz, who has children with special needs, had no sympathy for teachers when they complain about being rated with test scores. "They sound like they're the kids," she said. "Like they're the children because it's basically, it's life... everything has to change from the way we're learning."

"They have to question themselves too," Diaz added. "If they're not helping or not connecting [with students] then there is a problem."

Her friend Natividad Sanchez, who has one child still in preschool and another who's already graduated, said "I would love to see the teacher's name and know how far my child has gone in school."

Tom Maeglin of the Bronx, however, was in no rush to get these scores. His twin ninth graders go to some of the most selective high schools in the city -- Bronx High School of Science and LaGuardia High School, also known as the "Fame" school.

"I'll be banging on the door of my teachers' classroom when I need to see them, but I don't need the city to give me extra data in order for me to make a decision on how well my teacher's done."

"I'm not going to be judging them based on what 45 other kids did in their classroom," he added.

I heard the same thing from a Brooklyn couple whose eight grader attends a well-regarded school. "I think it's private because if I was a teacher I would rather stay private," said Tea Gigauri, as her husband nodded. "If I want to do something I go and talk to the teachers myself."

Those responses didn't surprise me because parents who figure out how to get their children into good schools are generally pretty savvy. I've seen this time and time again in my reporting. They move to certain neighborhoods to get into the right zone for a good school, or send their child to take gifted and talented exams at age five. They don't need teacher ratings. If they have any problems, they'll seek out solutions. But parents who aren't as knowledgeable about the education system, or who have been burned by past experiences, aren't likely to feel as secure. This is a city with over 1,600 public schools and more than 75,000 teachers. Those numbers are pretty overwhelming, especially for newcomers.

Brooklyn parent Mirko Gutierreztold had one solution. He's got children in the second and 11th grades and he seemed curious about the teacher ratings. But that he felt badly for teachers who would have to see their names in the press. He suggested that maybe the city should only release the names of teachers who were willing to go public.

In today's heated climate surrounding public education, though, that's not likely. People want better schools. And there's more data than ever before, and many more ways to use it.