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Asked to talk teacher ratings’ release, a panel skirts the topic

New York City’s release of teacher ratings last month stoked fierce debate over the role of evaluations in boosting student achievement and about whether the public should be privy to their results.

A panel discussion featuring former state education chief David Steiner; United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey; policy researchers; and Nick Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s journalism school tackled those issues this afternoon. The panel, part of a two-day long symposium on testing, was billed as a conversation about whether to make teacher ratings public, as New York City did with caveats last month and New York State is poised, at least legally, to do in the future.

But the panelists mostly skirted that issue, focusing instead on the bigger question of how current teacher evaluations can be improved upon — an issue that the state is grappling with as it rolls out new curriculum standards and prepares to impose a state-wide evaluation system.

Eric Nadelstern, a former top city Department of Education official who spoke from the audience, was the only person to speak out in favor of the data releases — or address the matter head on at all.

“Clearly the tests have to get better, but we can’t wait until they do before we use them to determine whether or not the adults are doing good work,” said Nadelstern, who led the city’s effort to create report cards for each school. “However imperfect the data, if we’re using it to make high stakes decisions about kids, shouldn’t we make that data available to the students, to the parents and to the public?”

Steiner said the process of evaluating teachers should not be done away with entirely, even though the measures are imperfect.

“The assessment of teachers is [born of] a panic mode justified by our knowledge of how difficult it has been to move certain poor practices out of the classroom,” he said. “It would be a mistake to throw out assessments because assessments shine light on dark places.”

The researchers on the panel said a major obstacle is “purpose creep”: that teacher evaluations are designed for one purpose (to measure teacher effectiveness) but are being used for many others. Politicians and policy-makers use the evaluations to effect political change, they said, while teachers use them to guide improvement and parents use them to seek out the “best” teachers.

Casey said he would add “weapon” to that list of uses, citing the New York Post’s coverage of the city’s Teacher Data Reports. The newspaper published a story singling out one teacher as the “worst” in the city based on her scores.

“Teachers now experience value-added measures as a weapon used against them, not as a tool to inform and improve education,” Casey said. “The whole development relates to the marginalization of our education profession.”

Lemann, who spoke next, cautioned the audience to remember that there is a “worthy goal” at the heart of the teacher evaluation process, but that it was important for educators not to let evaluations dictate everything that happens in the classroom. As the dean of a professional school, he said, many people would be happy if he were evaluated solely on the basis of students’ post-graduation employment. But he said his students would be missing out on many learning opportunities if the school set job-placement rates and starting salaries of its graduates as the only measures of success.

“If I got up in front of all of our stakeholders and said, ‘No one will ever read a book at our school, no faculty member will ever write a book, it’s all about … whatever the employers want us to do, and I want to be measured by the starting salary of our employees,’ [there would be] wild applause,” Lemann said.