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Judge Hears Arguments Over Releasing Teacher Ratings

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Charles Moerdler, the attorney for the United Federation of Teachers, argued it's "morally wrong" to put out inaccurate information (Beth Fertig)

Releasing the ratings of city teachers with their names attached would potentially damage their reputations. That's the argument their union made to a state judge Wednesday.

Thousands of elementary and middle school teachers have been rated based on how much progress their students made on standardized tests. The result is a ranking, or percentile, showing which teachers were most -- and least -- effective.

But the union's lawyer, Charles Moerdler, told State Supreme Court Judge Cynthia Kern these data reports had too many errors to be reliable. "If it's garbage in, it's garbage out," he said. "The sausage is still the unitary component of its parts."

Moerdler warned that releasing the teacher data reports to the media with names attached could be be damaging, and envisioned the headline "100 Worst Teachers."

"The City of Los Angeles did this and a teacher jumped off a bridge," he said, referring to an analysis in August by The Los Angeles Times that rated thousands of teachers with student test scores. A fifth grade teacher who got a low mark reportedly killed himself afterwards, though it's not certain if the incident was linked to the published report.

The union argues that the state's Freedom of Information Law allows agencies to use their discretion and withhold information that would damage a person's privacy. Moerdler claimed the data reports are also exempt because they amount to internal deliberations within an agency, noting they were to be used solely by principals and administrators for evaluation purposes and were not to be shared with parents. Moerdler pointed to a 2008 agreement the city made with the union not to release the teachers' names and said the United Federation of Teachers would have no objection to releasing the reports without names attached, as the city has done in the past.

Judge Kern asked the city about this agreement. Representing the Department of Education, attorney Jesse Levine said the city was using a different method for calculating teacher ratings back then and agreed not to voluntarily disclose the reports. But now that media outlets have specifically requested the teachers' names, he said, "the law compels us." Levine also defended the methodology, which is used in several other cities. And he said any exemptions under the law for privacy are to prevent harm, not "temporary embarrassment."

A lawyer for five news organizations told the judge the union was misinterpreting privacy rights, especially with respect to public employees. Attorney David Schulz said that the results of civil service exams can be made public. He also said any arguments about the "idiocy" of the teacher data reports "should be made in public."

"If, in fact, the Department of Education is spending millions of dollars to develop an assessment system that is meaningless, flawed or worse the public should know that," Shulz told reporters after the hearing.

Schulz also told the judge that the union has an interest in preventing teachers from being rated with test scores. "They want to maintain the seniority system, last in ,first out."

It's not known when the judge will issue a decision. The five media organizations that are intervenors in the case are The New York Times, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily News, and NY1 News.

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