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Only division during ed officials' pitch is teacher ratings' release

Speaking to philanthropists and foundation leaders on Monday, the city, state, and national schools chiefs presented a united front — except when it came to the sticky issue of whether to release teachers’ ratings to the public.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, State Education Commissioner John King, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered up tips on financing school reform at Philanthropy New York’s 33rd annual meeting.

The meeting drew representatives from major education organizations used to making and receiving philanthropic gifts, including the Harlem Children’s Zone and The After-School Corporation. It also attracted education policy neophytes from large private foundations: Many in the audience didn’t know how many of New York State’s 250,000 ninth graders typically make it to 12th grade without dropping out (Duncan furnished the answer: 188,000).

The trio of education policy heavyweights together urged attendees to think about how their contributions could support their priorities, such as implementing new learning standards, known as the Common Core, and overhauling the country’s lowest-performing schools. Walcott told the audience that private donations have fueled some of the city’s most innovative reform efforts, including the Common Core Library and the technology-infused iZone.

“I’m actually not coming here to ask you to give a lot more, although that would be great too, but to be really smarter in what you’re giving,” Duncan said.

But they were divided when moderator Beth Fertig, WNYC’s education report, asked whether they thought districts and states should make teacher evaluations available to the public, as New York City did in February in response to requests from several news organizations. It’s a question that state lawmakers could tackle this month.

Absolutely, Walcott said, reiterating the position he shares with Mayor Bloomberg — and, before him, former chancellor Joel Klein, under whose leadership the released ratings were calculated.

“I am not making any news today,” Walcott said. “It’s public information and it should be out there.”

Duncan and King were more circumspect. Duncan said he supported the public release of teacher rankings in Los Angeles in 2010, but only because information on teacher performance had not even been available to L.A. teachers.

“It drove me crazy they had this data and the teachers themselves didn’t have access to it,” he said. But Duncan noted that the data can be easily used by the press to create lists of “best” and “worst” teachers, as some New York City news organizations did. Those lists do more harm than good, Duncan said.

“At the end of the day, does every teacher’s test score need to end up in the newspaper? … I’m not sure if that moves us in the direction we need to go,” he said. “I don’t see a huge compelling need for publishing everyone’s information. Teacher morale is very low right now. The big thing is that teacher data should be available to teachers. And we should have that conversation about releasing it to parents.”

For King, there was less of a question. “I don’t think publication in the newspapers is helpful,” he said. “To me one of the dangers of publishing in the newspapers is it has the effect of boiling down the evaluations to a single measure. You can’t find a single researcher or policy-maker who says we should evaluate teachers on test scores only.”

Duncan said states and districts should think about how teacher ratings ought to be used when setting policies about publishing them.

“As a parent, I want information on how my school and how my potential school is doing. I don’t necessarily need information on every single teacher,” he said. “Can we empower parents and help strengthen and support teachers, and do those two things without being in conflict? I think so.”

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