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Christopher Emdin Headshot

Releasing Teacher Ratings Is Bad Idea

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The dismal conditions of the nation's public schools, along with the low rankings of U.S. students compared to their peers across the globe, have awakened the general public to be more engaged in the state of education in America. The media has in turn been sensationalizing the reporting of school issues. Unfortunately, what could easily become a collective movement to find genuine solutions to the problems that plague our schools has evolved into the search for who can tell the most compelling tale of doom, and who can capitalize off of the public's interest by creating a flawed narrative of what is good (often private schools) and what is bad (public schools and their teachers) in education.

America's education problems have been positioned in terms of one side against the other. The "cult of accountability" camp consists of people who have made a name for themselves by making statements like "schools aren't working" and "fire bad teachers." These people use the public's desire for change to rile up negativity. Their position is analogous to yelling "fire" in a crowded room without searching for a fire extinguisher or calling the fire department. They use the term "accountability" because it is a word that is hard to argue, and one that stokes the public's concern for schools until it ignites a disdain for public education.

In the latest iteration of the "cult of accountability," a state court allowed New York City to release performance reports for thousands of teachers and share them with the public. These reports, which evaluated educators based on student test scores, are essentially reports that allow the media (who made the initial request to release this data) to tell emotional stories about bad schools and bad teachers. The ultimate goal here seems to be to tell more tales of sadness and woe, and create victors and heroes in this never-ending game that does not benefit schools.

The bottom line is that the goal of improving education is not to show how bad things are and punish teachers. It is not to create a narrative of heroes and villains that feeds the media frenzy on schools and implants a superficial reality show model on the complexities of schooling. Rather, it is to show how great things can be and support educators in meeting our collective desire to improve schools.

In the section that follows, I focus specifically on why the release of teacher data (which is simply a new page in the script of sensationalizing education and telling tales of doom) is not a good idea for addressing the issues our schools face today.

1) Ratings will have effects on teacher morale

Releasing data that only captures a small piece of what teachers do, and publicizing that information as if it is the sole indicator of teacher performance is terribly unjust. Incomplete information by no means addresses other complex parts of teaching that a test cannot quantify, like a teacher's ability to positively affect student interest/participation, the quality of teacher planning/preparation, the effects of the conditions in the school/neighborhood on teaching, the dedication of the teacher, the training that the teacher may or may not have received, and the long-term effects of the instruction. When a teacher has done everything in his or her power to make sure students are learning, and they are publicly labeled as a "bad teacher" the emotional toll that takes is unbearable.

Let us all remember the case of the teacher in Los Angeles who committed suicide after a low teacher ranking was released to the public just a few years ago. Let us also consider that the current schools chancellor in New York has admitted that these teacher rankings will negatively impact teacher morale, which could directly affect student performance.

2) Ratings will affect teacher recruitment

One of the most dangerous effects of teacher ratings based on test scores is that they will deter the aspiring teacher who wants to make a difference in schools with low resources and underserved populations from wanting to work there. The risk of public humiliation for working in the most challenging schools will result in an exodus of teachers from already hard to staff schools.

The teacher ratings, despite disclaimers about scaling for issues like poverty, cannot fully capture the impact of societal factors within communities populated by poor youth of color (which are all a function of a flawed system beyond schools) and will not publicly place the ratings in this context. Teachers are well aware that the NYC news organizations that requested the release of these ratings are not making the case for considering other factors affecting test scores, and are not willing to gamble their careers on someone seeing more than a terribly biased report that is on the pages of a newspaper.

3) Ratings drive good educators to schools that don't need them

When ratings become public, teachers who have the lowest test scores become fearful of being labeled publicly as bad teachers. In response, more seasoned teachers will choose not go to schools where there are lower test scores. Just as we will have an issue with teacher recruitment, there will be another issue of an exodus of good teachers from schools where they are most needed. This exodus is already a big piece of the equation in NYC public schools where seasoned teachers, after they have "earned their stripes" in city schools, move to more suburban school districts for better pay. I suggest that the combination of better pay and not being publicly labeled as a bad teacher will be too much of a draw for good city teachers.

4) It promotes the sensationalism of education

We can easily determine what the collateral results of the release of data will be before we even see it. There will be many "bad" teachers in low-income schools populated by youth of color, who in some cases have the most dedicated teachers, and these schools will be positioned as places where neither teachers nor students would want to go. At the same time, schools with high test scores will be positioned as having the best teachers, even if the students would score well on the exams without teachers in the room.

This narrow narrative will promote the TV, movie and reality show mindset of a hero vs. villain, good vs. bad. Applying this dynamic in schools will open up the arena for the privatization of schools, increased sales of test prep training and materials, and further ignoring of the true needs of youth in schools.

5) Ratings reinforce the false notion that in education testing is everything

For the general public who is interested in education, the positioning of teacher ratings that are directly correlated to student test scores as the indicator of teacher performance is a step backwards from our collective understanding of how complex schools are. The president highlighted this point in his last state of the union address when he affirmed that we should not "teach to the test." The release of teacher rankings based on test data simply contradicts the statements the president has made and undoes any progress the country has achieved in improving our educational system. The contradiction between advocating that teachers should not teach to the test and then using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers makes no sense, and simply shows us that despite what is being shared with the public, many people with the power to change the direction of public schools still believe that in education, testing is everything.