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




Perhaps this data dump was the best thing to happen to those who have been trying to steer the national school conversation away from testing and more testing, to thinking and learning how to learn. What should be central in all these stories is the fundamental problem: What’s the best way to evaluate teachers? How can authentic learning be measured? Should standardized tests be used at all to do it? They are one-day snapshots of how well one student answers a handful of basic, low-level questions. At best they are crude instruments; at worst, they are vulnerable to manipulation.

Sarah Wysocki’stale from the nation’s capital shines a cautionary headlight on the real-life dangers that may lie ahead for districts that put a lot of stock in these numbers. In DC, value-added numbers count for a full half of a teacher’s evaluation, even more than in New York. Bill Turque reported in The Washington Post that the highly regarded fifth-grade teacher received a stellar review by her principal and peers, and was then fired because so many of her students didn’t show any progress on their math and reading tests last year.

Wysocki offered a new twist on the data troubles. She pointed out to Turque that about half her students arrived in her fifth grade class with what she believed were inflated scores from their previous school—a school that is now under investigation for test tampering. Any honest teacher could never hope to improve on fraudulent scores. She appealed her dismissal, lost, and moved away.

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