Some chose to believe Gates had finally come to appreciate the complexities and nuances of good teaching, something that cannot be boiled down to a number based on students’ tests. But if that were the case, he would have backed away from endorsing the value-added formulas. Instead, he advocated only that they be kept from the public. It’s more plausible to me that he is worried the public will turn against the test-driven accountability agenda promoted by his foundation—which has fueled policy for the last several decades—as these not-ready-for-primetime rankings are scrutinized to death. Whatever the case, it was an unexpected signal from one of the nation’s most influential data-driven reformers.

Even more surprising was the detour taken by Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education. Last year, Duncan applauded the Los Angeles Times for being the first newspaper to print rankings—its own—next to teachers’ names. He encouraged other news organizations to do the same. This year, he recently posed and answered his own question to Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuck, “Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do.”

All of the above

Obviously, the mood in recent months had been dialed back from fever pitch to tepid, possibly in recognition that teacher-bashing as a reform strategy had seen its best days.

Last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein, then the city’s Chancellor of Education, gave these numbers their high-five support. Even after Klein left to head the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., his city department went so far as to encourage local news organizations to make sure they FOILED for the teacher data in a timely fashion—with names. And back then the department responded to their requests with uncharacteristic speed.

At the New York Daily News, Deputy Editor Arthur Browne said he discussed releasing the reports with department officials several times last year when he was editorial-page editor, in response to the bold Los Angeles Times move. “There wasn’t any resistance on Tweed’s part to us getting them,” Browne said in a recent interview, referring to Tweed Hall, city schools headquarters. Pressure mounted among the city’s education reporters—who were nearly all opposed to publishing the data. Some even threatened to quit over it. Just as the drama began to boil over, the United Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit to stop the release.

That left Klein’s laid-back successor, Dennis Walcott, holding the data bag more than a year later, after the union’s court appeals had run their course. On February 24, Walcott finally released the reports, all wrapped in caveats and finger wagging. “It would be irresponsible for anyone to use this information to render judgments about individual teachers,” he wrote in a Daily News op ed that same day. He repeatedly reminded readers that the numbers were two years old, and should never be used in isolation. “I’m deeply concerned that some of our hardworking teachers might be denigrated in the media based on this information. That would be inexcusable.” Clearly, his heart wasn’t in it.

Walcott’s sheepish tone mystified news editors as their staff scrambled to build apps and technical platforms to house the numbers. “It was disarming,” said Mary Ann Giordano, editor of the New York Times’s “Walcott was stepping back from these numbers, blaming news organizations if they published names.”

Editors had to work fast to decide what to do. Publish the raw spreadsheets? Take the numbers at face value and march out the best and worst teachers, one by one? Write thoughtful critiques of all the downsides of the data and publish them anyway, next to teachers’ names? Or refuse to publish at all, for fear of misleading the public with faulty figures and maligning teachers with bogus data?

Maybe it was the robust news climate, or all the tangled messages from on high, but for New York’s media, the answer was: all of the above.

LynNell Hancock is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and director of the school's Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism.