Still, there were some head-scratchers. The News’s first-day headline was a case in point: “More Than a Dozen Teachers Earned Lowest Scores.” This was a “Bridges-Help-People-Cross-Rivers” kind of headline. The rankings are calculated on a curve, meaning there will always be dozens at the bottom, dozens at the top, wide swaths of fair-to-middlin’ in between. That’s the nature of a bell curve, another controversial aspect of this calculation, which means the city will never be able to announce that all its teachers are high-performing.

The Times goes both ways

This brings us to the puzzling experience of reading about the test data in The New York Times. In partnership with WNYC public radio, the Times produced the city’s most sophisticated stories, and, next to The Wall Street Journal, the most polished graphics. Reporters took care to detail the data’s myriad errors, political nuances, and to put them into context. A careful reader could not help but come away believing the numbers were anything but radioactive.

Then the Times published every one of them anyway, with names.

Anna Phillips hammered out incisive blog after blog for SchoolBook.org about mistakes teachers found in their reports, about the DOE’s conflicting messages, about parents’ reactions. National education columnist Michael Winerip found a top-ranked school with bottom-ranked teachers to illustrate the numerical idiosyncrasies. In a second column he was the first to argue that publishing the bad numbers was the best thing that could happen to ultimately discredit them. SchoolBook.org editors created a helpful 14-point FAQ column covering nearly every base (except the inflated state tests). Teachers were invited to contribute blogs for the site. One 20-year veteran teacher wrote about being slapped with a 6th percentile ranking one year and exonerated by a 96th the next, underscoring how pointless, and demoralizing, they were.

And yet, there the rankings were, on display on its SchoolBook.org homepage, begging the question, why publish them at all?

Two reasons, explained Jodi Rudoren, the Times’ education editor at the time (she now heads the paper’s Jerusalem bureau): First, “We’re in the business of disclosing information that’s in the public interest,” she said. And second, “We do not operate in a vacuum,” meaning if the Times didn’t publish them, another news organization would anyway.

Some attention was paid to minimizing harm. The Times invited teachers to add comments next to their scores on a Google Doc, for example. By last count, only 60 out of a possible 18,000 had participated, most of them correcting their reports. Editors briefly flirted with the idea of somehow fiddling with the search function so that teachers’ rankings would not be the first thing that popped up when anyone Googled their name. “We considered it, but it’s a weird business to get involved in—suppressing searches,” said Rudoren. “It would be a gesture blocking the tabloidization of this data. But in the end, we felt it was not our role.”

The bottom line for Times editors was the fact that the Department of Education used this data to evaluate teachers, most recently stalling tenure decisions for those trapped in the bottom. Currently, the State Department of Education is generating new value-added reports that will be used in the city and beyond to make high-stakes decisions about teachers; and the legislature is embroiled in tortured debates over whether to make the results partially or fully public. “We thought it was important to provide parents with the same information that the DOE was using to evaluate teachers, shedding light on its decisions,” said Rudoren.

Maybe so, but are parents taking the data seriously? Principals in both New York and Los Angeles worried that parents would arm themselves with these numbers and storm their offices, causing chaos by demanding to switch their children from low-scoring teachers to higher scoring ones. If they are, the union representing New York City principals hasn’t heard about it yet. And if Los Angeles is a bellwether, in the two years since parents have been able to read their teachers’ scores in the paper, there has been little organizing around them.




Clear as mud




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