“TDRs are a four-letter word!” That was my son’s favorite slogan when the parents and teachers at his school, Public School 321 in Park Slope, held a rally in the fall of 2010 to protest the imminent release of the teacher data reports. We were not alone. Sister rallies were held the same day at Brooklyn’s Public School 24, Public School 29, Middle School 51, Public School 154, and the John Jay Campus Community, and more than 5,000 letters of protest were signed across all five boroughs condemning the public humiliation of teachers as well as the release of what we believed were inaccurate scores. Sadly, though, after months of legal appeals, the teacher data reports were finally made public last week. And what have we learned?
First, the scores are meaningless. The formula for calculating the teacher data reports was flawed, and as a result, the scores – with their margins of error of up to 50 points (out of 100) – are utterly worthless. On top of that, erroneous data (scores from invalid state tests, student scores attributed to the wrong teacher, etc.) were plugged into that flawed formula, compounding the inaccuracies. At P.S. 321, parents tangibly see this worthlessness as several of our incredible teachers, including some of the most coveted, have received impossibly low scores. It is our children’s experience with these exceptional educators that counts, not a single score from the data reports.
Second, media kingpins appear to care more about screaming headlines than they do about truth, accuracy, and responsible journalism. Researchers warned that the scores were error-ridden, yet various media outlets made the choice to go ahead and publish the teacher ratings. (Kudos to GothamSchools and InsideSchools for refusing to follow the fold.) I truly wonder: would statistics in medicine, economics, or any other field, when they carry such a wide margin of error, be similarly published? And do not forget the complicit role of the Bloomberg administration in this debacle. The city’s lawyers were right there in court, arguing for the release of the teacher rankings, even after the Department of Education had assured the United Federation of Teachers that these scores would remain private. Then-Chancellor Joel S. Klein was also more than happy to serve up these scores on a silver platter, reneging on his department’s promise to teachers and publicly outlining his reasons for their dissemination.
Third, teachers feel denigrated and humiliated. Some have spoken out publicly in the press and on blogs, while many have spoken privately with confidants. I couldn’t help but wonder how they felt facing their classes on that first Monday back, not knowing if their students had seen their scores, not knowing if their students (and students’ parents) were judging them as a result. How could this happen? Have we no sense of common decency? I feel as if I’m witnessing a witch hunt. And I further wonder if our terrific teachers at P.S. 321 will stay at our school, or if this type of public persecution will drive them away – and prevent promising young adults from ever joining the teaching ranks.
So what do we do now? How do we move forward? To begin, I believe we must stop these attacks on our teachers. It is no way to treat one another (did we learn nothing in kindergarten?), and it is no way to improve education. We must turn away from this punitive blame game and instead work in a collaborative endeavor for the greater good. Look to the models. Look to Finland, where teachers are respected and trusted, and continual professional development is paramount. Look to Montgomery County, Md., where a successful system of teacher evaluation consists of mentoring struggling teachers combined with a panel of teachers and principals to decide if a teacher must be fired. (I only hope that New York State’s new system of teacher evaluation does not preclude the use of such successful strategies.) And stop relying on a score from a single high-stakes test to trump all the other 180 days in the classroom.
As for parents, of course we want our children to have excellent teachers. But as we have learned, these rankings tell us nothing. It is time to rely on our own observations, both direct and indirect, to gauge our children’s learning experiences in the classroom. Look at the types of assignments our children receive, the kinds of books they bring home to read, the quality of feedback they receive on their written work. It is this type of information that will tell us whether our child has a great teacher – and whether we need to be advocating for changes in the classroom.