Teachers Need to Take Control of Their Professional Lives

01/25/2011 01:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Value-added scores and teacher assessment are not going to disappear from the educational landscape anytime soon. Several states are already including value-added scores in future evaluations. New York State will make them 25 percent of teacher evaluations in 2013; Pennsylvania and Ohio already use them. So do many districts in other states. On the heels of this trend is the publication of teacher rankings. Since the Los Angeles Times released performance data of nearly six thousand elementary teachers in August, major national newspapers have been seeking access to rankings.

In this age of communication tsunamis, teachers need to face the fact that what used to be private is going to become public. A few weeks ago a New York City judge ruled that its school district can release the ratings of 12,000 teachers (Los Angeles Times 1/11/11). Major newspapers countrywide seek similar information. Unions may succeed in fighting individual cases, but others will follow.

For teachers it is a rude awakening to find that after decades of confidential evaluations, parts of them are going public, fast. The New York City judge wrote that courts have repeatedly found

that release of job-performance related information, even negative information such as that involving misconduct, does not constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The bottom line is obvious -- parents and the general public have a right to know how their children's teachers measure up, and which ones do not measure up at all.

But something else needs to go public, and teachers have the power to deliver it. The same electronic and personal communication tools that are used to post rankings can become tools for teachers to communicate the depth and needs of their teaching lives. Nobody else is going to do it. Blogs, online discussions, letters to editors, talking with friends and families can all become media for teachers.

The public needs to know how complex teaching is and how important it is for teachers to be supported in meeting the diversified needs of their students. The public, including policy makers, needs to understand that teaching to simplistic, multiple-choice tests does not create students who can think for themselves, probe curriculum content, and stretch their learning powers. Some teachers, in response to the value-added test score rankings, have complained that they cannot raise their students' test scores because of all the ills the children experience outside of school -- no parental support, malnutrition, and more. Although these conditions exist, and society as a whole needs to confront such issues, many teachers improve students' performance regardless of home situations. That is the message that needs to get out. Teachers expending enormous effort to challenge their students usually get positive results.

What other messages need to be sent to the public? Teachers need to have the opportunity to see and analyze the results of their own value-added scores (or which ever measure is being used) before the public sees them. They need opportunities to assess how they can improve instruction for the varied children in their classes and to collaborate with each other to find more effective teaching strategies. In China, teachers are provided time during their work day to collaborate with each other, observe each other and develop improved lessons. In contrast, teachers in the United States have about two hours once a month for teacher development.

If teachers are not to be blamed for the ills of society, the public needs to understand the complexity of the profession. Teachers cannot foster enthusiasm for learning by having to give tests every week to prepare the children for taking monthly tests that prepare them for the yearly tests. Most teachers take their jobs seriously and would give their eye teeth to see their students soar academically. But it becomes increasingly difficult to do with a curriculum that grows narrower by the month.

Any teacher could add to this list a hundred fold. But most important is to help people beyond the teaching profession understand its complexity and demands. Teachers are the ones who can get the word out successfully. No one else has the depth of knowledge and experience to do so.