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What Should Be Learned From the Teacher Rankings?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 08:19 AM

In the news on Tuesday, the fallout from the release of teacher data ratings continued, with reporting and commentary in an array of blogs, newspapers and magazines.

In a New Yorker online post, a senior editor, Amy Davidson, writes about her emotions as she looked at the rankings for the teachers at her child's high-performing middle school. In the post, titled "Bad Teachers, or Bad Ratings?" she writes:

If you believe in statistics, you are presented with a terrific school with terrible teachers -- except that the importance of teachers is what underlies this whole exercise and, as far as your amateur eye can tell, has been a key part of its success. You also learn that there are similar contradictory numbers at other good -- or is that “good” -- schools, including the elementary school your child just graduated from, toward which you feel unmitigated gratitude. You might be a parent who really does believe that tests are meaningful, and knows for a fact that teachers are. And then you’re just confused.

In her attempt to make sense of what is going on in city schools, Ms. Davidson also looks at Fernanda Santos's article in Sunday's Metropolitan section of The Times, which reported on the low percentage of black students at Stuyvesant High School. That article attracted an outpouring of comments on The Times's site. Ms. Davidson says the city needs "better answers" for why the number of black students at Stuyvesant, the city's elite high school, is "shockingly low."

There are many theories as to why this is so, and some, like the failure to make sure that children at many middle schools even know about Stuyvesant, let alone how to prepare, seem well within the city’s means to address. What does the failure to do so say about the city’s broader expectations of its students -- or the ones we should have of the city?

Another well-regarded magazine, The Atlantic, also looks at the data release. Emily Richmond recalls when The Los Angeles Times hired an outside researcher to devise its own methodology for teacher rankings, which it then used for all of the district's teachers. There was much controversy and outrage when the newspaper published its rankings and series of articles,"Grading the Teachers: Value-Added Analysis."

Ms. Richmond interviews Doug Smith, the data reporter for the Los Angeles Times project, who said for all the concerns, there were no obvious negative consequences to publishing the names of the teachers and their ratings.

"Most of the teachers who called were angry that we had published individual names, but we also got calls from teachers who thanked us for giving them some feedback that they had never received before," Smith said. "We certainly know a lot of teachers were upset. There could have been a morale issue, I won't disagree with that. But if we observed a clear and distinct negative impact, we would probably rethink what we're doing. But so far, we haven't seen that."

Sharon Otterman of The Times also looked at the results of the publication of teacher rankings in Los Angeles. In a background memo to education reporters, she said the rankings provoked fears, but the newspaper later concluded that, by highlighting examples of effective teachers, even if narrowly defined, and putting poor teachers on notice, the release had negative and positive effects. She cited the case of a popular fifth-grade teacher in south Los Angeles, Rigoberto Ruelas, who committed suicide that September. He did not leave a note, but the teachers' union president, A. J. Duffy, said his staff was told by Mr. Ruelas’s family that the teacher was under extra pressure at work because he had scored “average” in teaching English and slightly “less effective” than his peers in math. The union called the database “despicable” and called for it to be taken down.

But last April The Los Angeles Times followed up on its reporting. It revisited one teacher, Miguel Aguilar, who had been highlighted in The Los Angeles Times's series as an example of an outstanding teacher, and then “went through hell” because of it.

Then the unexpected happened -- people asked him to share his skills. The principal, Stannis Steinbeck, asked if he would be willing to lead a schoolwide training session. Mr. Aguilar said her request "blew my mind," the paper reported.

The demonstration to a classroom full of teachers in February was well received. Then he went grade by grade giving sample lessons as the teachers looked on. Within six weeks, third-grade proficiency in reading and comprehension rose to 30 percent from 20 percent, Ms. Steinbeck told the newspaper.

"Miguel is part of creating the new culture at this school," Ms. Steinbeck said. "I think every principal should know that within their ranks there are teachers who can take the lead like this."

We still want to hear your thoughts about the release of the rankings. Can you see the public listing of teachers' rankings leading to improvements in schools? Parents, what do you think? Join the conversation here.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m., members of the New York State Assembly and Senate, parents and representatives of the city's Community Education Council will announce their support for proposed state legislation that would give the local panels the power to veto school co-locations in their districts. The event will take place at Department of Education headquarters, Tweed Courthouse, 52 Chambers Street.

The New York City Strategic Alliance for Health is working to raise parents' awareness that the city's schools are not in compliance with New York State Education Department physical education requirements. It is holding a parent educational forum from 5 to 6 p.m. at 390 Fort Washington Avenue (175th Street stop on the A train), Manhattan.

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