“Somebody explain this to me,” wrote principal George Wood last summer on his blog for the Forum on Education and Democracy, a national coalition of educators and reformers. Wood has served as principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills for eighteen years.
In that time we have increased graduation and college going rates, engaged our students in more internships and college courses, created an advisory system that keeps tabs on all of our students, and developed the highest graduation standards in the state (including a Senior Project and Graduation Portfolio). But reading the popular press, and listening to the chatter from Washington, I have just found out that we are not part of the movement to ‘reform’ schools.
You see we did not do all the stuff that the new ‘reformers’ think is vital to improve our schools. We did not fire the staff, eliminate tenure, or pay based on test scores. We did not become a charter school. We did not take away control from a locally elected school board and give it to a mayor. We did not bring in a bunch of two-year short-term teachers.
Nope, we did not do any of these things. Because we knew they would not work.
By December, frustration was mounting among the New York reporters as they waited for the State Supreme Court judge to decide whether the teacher data should be released or not. Reporters described “a spirited debate” that erupted during an off-the-record pizza and wine farewell party for outgoing Chancellor Klein before Christmas. Several in attendance said reporters bombarded him with pointed questions about the data, and Klein defended their release, for the sake of parents’ right to know.
Meanwhile, some reporters produced stories that attempted to add context to the controversy over the data. WNYC ran a story that examined what school districts in Denver, the District of Columbia, and Tennessee were doing with their value-added reports. Meredith Kolodner at the Daily News found a Manhattan middle school teacher who received a “zero” rating for her performance as an English teacher. The problem? Pamela Flanagan had never taught English, only math and science. Sharon Otterman of the Times wrote a thoughtful piece that dug into some of the research. She reported on a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research institute study that warned the city’s error rate was probably very large. That’s because the Department of Education was using only four years’ worth of students’ tests to analyze each teacher (Los Angeles used seven years’ worth). The study found that with only three years of data, the results were wrong 25 percent of the time.
Parents and community members remained off the radar, however. In New York, 5,000 parents sent protest letters to the Department of Education in December opposing the release of the teacher-data reports. “We believe there must be meaningful teacher evaluations in our children’s schools,” said Martha Foote, a Brooklyn PS 321 parent, “but humiliating teachers with unreliable information will only hurt them.” Their letters did not make the news.
In November, reporters got another surprise. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would replace Klein with Cathie Black, a Hearst magazine executive who had neither government service nor education experience. The New York Times went on a rare offensive against the mayor’s choice. Reporters continued to wait for the teachers union’s case to be resolved, but by this time, the Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, and WNYC had all decided to print the data when it does arrive—names included. (The Wall Street Journal refused to disclose its plans.)
On January 10, State Supreme Court Judge Cynthia Kern ruled in favor of the city and the news organizations, saying that “there is no requirement that data be reliable for it to be disclosed.” The union quickly filed an appeal. And at press time the data was stalled in court, again.
But as they waited, the news outlets were constructing databases to collect and report the numbers, which will be searchable by teacher’s name, by school, and by district. WNYC, for example, is building an interactive tool that will try to provide context for individual teachers and caveats for the wide swath of statistical errors.