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by Stephen Sawchuck
Publishing teachers' ratings in the newspaper in the way The New York Times and other outlets have done recently is not a good use of performance data, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview yesterday.
"Do you need to publish every single teacher's rating in the paper? I don't think you do," he said. "There's not much of an upside there, and there's a tremendous downside for teachers. We're at a time where morale is at a record low. ... We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them."
So how does this square with Duncan's famous endorsement, in 2010, of the Los Angeles Times' controversial project to publish a database of teacher "value added" ratings?
Duncan told me that while that project highlighted important data that at the time had been collected and unused by the district, its publication was "far from ideal."
"What I was reacting to in L.A. was this mind-boggling situation where teachers were denied access to this data. The only way they could get it was through the newspaper," he said. "There was clearly some level of dysfunction [in the district], that this was the only way they could get it."
In Los Angeles, the city teachers' union still hasn't come around to using the data in a districtwide evaluation system, but such a system is now being piloted in some schools with teacher volunteers.
Duncan's comments opposing the mass publication of this information echo others in the field—including philanthropist Bill Gates and Teach For America's Wendy Kopp. While both are generally bullish on the use of such data as a component of teacher evaluations, they argue that its mass publication amounts to a shaming of teachers.
However, Duncan indicated he supports the judicious disclosure of this data to school principals and to parents.
"My question would be at some point, if you have not just a low value-added score but three or four years [of low evaluations]—are we informing parents? Are we going to do something about it?" he said.
He underscored that any such sharing should also be a comprehensive look at teacher performance, not just test-score related measures, and that all of these discussions will have to be worked out carefully with the various players.
"Having those thoughtful conversations with principals, teachers, parents, with strong union leaders, that's the way we're going to get there. ... It's hard, it's candid, but I think it's important. When [the information ] is being used in meaningful ways, that's the opposite from the newspaper putting everything out there."
Duncan's thinking on this matter seems to have evolved over time. But it isn't likely to calm his fiercest critics, many of whom are likely to accuse the education secretary of trying to have it both ways.
It's also worth noting that states are all over the place in whether they're even allowed to give parents (or others) access to teacher evaluations. Their open-records laws regarding personnel evaluations are exceptionally murky. An Education Week analysis of these laws conducted by Amy Wickner, a research intern on EdWeek's library team, found 18 states plus the District of Columbia in which access to teacher evaluations is theoretically permissible, though it's not at all clear whether that means just the final rating or various components of the system.
We'll have a lot more for you on this topic in a full story, so keep checking back at our homepage, www.edweek.org.