On its own accord, the Tennessee Department of Education won’t publish controversial teacher evaluation scores alongside the names of the instructors, but some of this information could be available via open records requests this summer.
Yet until a media outlet in Tennessee follows the formula from other states, cites the state’s open records laws and asks for the updated personnel files of the state’s 65,000 teachers, it’s unclear which areas of the complicated 1-through-5 scoring rubric would be accessible to the public.
And that raises an ethics question. Whether a media outlet should actually post evaluation data and teacher names is as contentious as the evaluation system itself. Even open government advocates are torn on the issue. It’s a debate that has created a firestorm elsewhere, most recently in New York, whereThe New York Times, after a long legal battle with city schools, obtained and posted teacher evaluations in an online database.
In an interview with The City Paper, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, nearing his first full year in the position, dismissed as “incorrect” media reports that his department planned to publish evaluation scores attached to teachers’ names. The department is, of course, obligated to review open records requests on teacher personnel files, and would review them with state attorneys, he said.
“If news organizations or others make open records requests, we’ll have to review the requests, and figure out if we need to hand over that information, which could lead news organizations to publish that information,” Huffman said.
But an important caveat will determine which evaluation data in Tennessee actually receives sunshine.
Under the evaluation system, each teacher across the state is assigned a score ranging from 1 through 5. Administrators arrive at that figure by weighing three categories. Half the score is based on in-class observations by principals. Student achievement accounts for another 15 percent. The remaining 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation stems from what educators call value-added data, which measures a student’s progress over time, from one year to the next. According to state law, as Huffman pointed out, value-added data is protected from public records, complicating what state officials would be willing to publicize.
“Part of the challenge is that because value-added scores are protected by law, we can’t give out value-added scores, and we can’t give out information that will allow people to ultimately figure out the value-added scores,” Huffman said. “We would just have to look at every request that came in, because I think the nuances are tricky.”
In short, a teacher’s in-class observation score could very well be made a public record. But the value-added portion, more than one-third of a teacher’s overall scores, would not. That creates a grey area: The state wouldn’t hand over the final 1-through-5 score, along with remaining 65 percent of that score’s basis. If it did, someone could simply pull out a calculator to determine that shielded value-added portion.
At issue are the scores stamped on every teacher in Tennessee in the state’s new teacher evaluation system, implemented in the current school year in Tennessee and part of a growing trend nationwide. Performance evaluations have emerged as a hot-button education issue in Tennessee, with many teachers deriding the approach as flawed, unfair, time-consuming and methodical.
In other parts of the country, obtaining and publishing these scores — and the identities of the teachers who received each one — have proven contentious. The first news outlet to do so was the Los Angeles Times, which in 2010 overcame resistance from teachers’ unions to publicize evaluation scores, accompanied by teacher names, on the newspaper’s website.
In February, The New York Times published scores of New York City teachers after a failed legal effort by the United Federation of Teachers and despite the opposition of many educators. Today, a parent, teacher or student — anyone for that matter — can go on a Times-administered site called SchoolBook and find the evaluation scores for every teacher in the city. Some rankings are high. Some are abysmally low.
For now, Huffman is urging media outlets in Tennessee against taking up this tactic, saying that publicizing the information would yield nothing more than gossip material that isn’t in the interests of teachers.
“What I have indicated and continue to believe is that news organizations shouldn’t do this,” Huffman said. “I don’t think it’s in the public’s interest to publish teacher names and evaluation scores next to them. That’s not something that people would willingly do with the private sector. It’s not a good management practice to put out evaluation results of employees.”
While Huffman presents a case for protecting teachers, the evaluation system itself has drawn heavy criticism from many classroom instructors. Teachers’ unions in Tennessee lost the battle to defeat it, and they don’t want the scores publicized.
“There’s a lot of issues with why that shouldn’t happen,” said Stephen Henry, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union. “First, it’s using an evaluation system that at this point has yet to even be proven reliable. Second of all, it’s using it for a purpose for which it wasn’t intended.
“There’s also a problem in using this 1-through-5 rubric,” he said. “The state department of education considers a ‘3’ to be a good solid teacher, yet when a parent sees on a scale of 1 through 5 a ‘3,’ that’s to them average. There’s a misunderstanding in even reading the scale.”
Stakeholders who might seem to gain from the release of a teacher evaluation score are parents, who could presumably use that information as insight into the competence of their children’s instructors. But even parents aren’t uniformly in favor of making such data available to everyone.
“I’m kind of on the fence about that in terms of privacy,” said Erica Lanier, chair of Metro’s Parent Advisory Council. She said perhaps a “decent middle ground” could be to open the scores to parents who have concerns about a particular teacher, but only after other avenues were exhausted.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to put all of that information out there,” she said.
Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register, a proponent of the evaluation system, said posting scores undermines its intent: “If you think about it in terms of a constructive process, focusing on best practice, of really having productive conversations on how do you improve practices, then publishing a teacher’s name in a paper is sort of counter to that,” he said.
In New York and Los Angeles, the driving forces behind publicizing evaluation scores were newspapers. Some open government advocates say scores and teacher names should be subject to the public’s eye, but only in a way that shows journalistic integrity.
“Obviously, it should be a public record,” said Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association. “Government should make it as easy to get that information as it possibly can. It can be an ordeal sometimes at the state to get a public record request completed.
“But to just publish the evaluation number and a teacher’s name without there being some explanation of why a score might be low, or without talking to the teacher to get some explanation from the teacher, would be journalistically questionable,” he said.
Others in the field struggle with the idea of publishing the information at all.
Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said his organization hasn’t established an official position on the issue. Sure, evaluation scores are public documents, he said, but numbers should be publicized carefully. He called the evaluation system a “brand-new ballgame,” and said he isn’t entirely sure what the scores really say about teachers.
“Personally, I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” Flanagan said of publishing the scores. “Number one, why do we want to know the teachers’ scores unless those scores are used in a way to determine whether the teacher will continue teaching?
“I don’t think anyone has really thought this issue through to the point where they can say with any kind of authority that this is not going to hurt anybody,” he said.