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.
It was probably inevitable. Journalists by instinct and trade are usually in the role of arguing for full disclosure of public information, fending off cautious government arguments for moderation and restraint, not the other way around. That instinct, and the pressure of competition, eventually won out. After all, the information is public, some reporters noted, and the city is using it for tenure decisions and evaluations. “It’s in the public interest,” said Trontz of The New York Times. “If we find the data is so completely botched, or riddled with errors that it would be unfair to release it, then we would have to think very long and hard about releasing it.”
The only holdout so far appears to be GothamSchools.org. “We plan to run a message saying why we are opposed to using the names,” said Elizabeth Green, editor of the site and author of a forthcoming book, Building a Better Teacher. “I want to treat schools with as much dignity as we treat restaurants. We don’t just splash grades A through F about restaurants in the paper without explanation. We do individual stories. To be fair.”
Perfection of the data is not the point, argues Arthur Browne, editorial page editor of the Daily News. The numbers, he said, will be “a net positive in terms of adding to the conversation about quality of teachers.”
But what about the quality of that conversation?