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After Championing Release, City Says It Did Not Want Teacher Data Public

Friday, February 24, 2012 - 09:31 PM

Facing a flood of criticism from teachers and principals, the city's Education Department is trying to distance itself from the release of 18,000 teachers' individual performance rankings to the press. That has not always been so.

In a guide sent to public school principals on Friday, city officials suggested that the principals respond to teachers' concerns by telling them that the Department of Education "did not support the release of this data; we were required to do so by the courts."

The guide also encouraged principals not to speak to journalists who might call with questions about the reports or specific teachers' performance. (The Education Department later reversed this order, permitting principals to talk to reporters.)

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott has repeatedly said that he has mixed feelings about the release of the reports and has warned reporters against singling out individual teachers for criticism. It is unclear whether he took any actions to end the department's legal battle for publication.

His predecessor, Joel I. Klein, championed the reports' release, telling reporters that he supported their publication by teachers' names.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported that the Education Department's press office went a step further, encouraging reporters to file Freedom of Information requests -- known as foils -- for the individualized reports. According to the Review article by Lynnell Hancock:

But the Department of Education had privately dropped hints to some reporters that their competitors had already submitted foils, some journalists countered. Suspicions had been raised when the department responded to the foils with uncharacteristic speed. Normally, such requests took months, with layers of negotiations, said Maura Walz, a reporter for GothamSchools.org, an independent online news service. This time, it was service with a smile. “The Department of Education wants this out,” said Ian Trontz, a New York Times metro editor. “They have a lot of faith in these reports. They believe they are trustworthy enough to educate and empower parents.”

Still, empowering parents had not seemed to be a top goal in the past for this administration. To the most skeptical reporters, it appeared as if the city was using them.

And when the rankings were first created in 2008 as part of a pilot program to evaluate teachers, a then-deputy chancellor, Christopher Cerf, said it would be a “powerful step forward” to have the teacher measurements made public, arguing, “If you know as a parent what’s the deal, I think that whole aspect will change behavior.”

He later said that the reports, at least at first, would be treated as personnel records not subject to public-records laws.

A spokesman for the Education Department, Matthew Mittenthal, said in an e-mail message, "More than a dozen media outlets filed requests for this data with names, the courts ruled we had to release it, and we have always been clear and consistent about our concerns."

The chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, said on Friday that she opposed the release of the reports and, she recalled, it was city officials who stoked reporters' interest and sided with the media in court.

"It was wrong to invite the FOIL," Dr. Tisch said. "There is a tone of malevolence to this, and it is not the way to build a working relationship with the teachers."

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