Editorial: More on the scarlet letter frenzy

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by Sandi Jacobs

As we discussed in our recent blog post, we view the public reporting of individual teachers' evaluation ratings as unfortunate scarlet letter policies that are ultimately bad for the profession. In the aftermath of the public release of NYC's value-added data last week, we decided that the matter was worth revisiting.

First and foremost, if a teacher consistently isn't cutting it in the classroom, then school districts should have the legal wherewithal (not to mention the fortitude) to dismiss that teacher. While it's true that too many states currently don't make it clear enough that a teacher can be dismissed for ineffective classroom performance, this is an issue that should be taken up in states' dismissal policies, not in the form of parental notification policies that in effect use shame to passive-aggressively push poor performers out of the classroom.

Some states--including Florida and Indiana--are now requiring that parents receive notice if their children are taught by ineffective teachers. We know these policies are not based on a desire to humiliate low-performing teachers but on a belief that the "consumer" should be informed. However, as is the nature of public school, parents aren't consumers at the teacher level; they are generally not able to hand-pick their child's teacher each year. Thus, releasing poor performers' ratings--or high-performing teachers' ratings, for that matter--is opening a Pandora's box that is sure to set schools and districts spinning.

The situation in New York City is especially unfortunate because the value-added data that have been released were never intended to stand alone--let alone, be published--as a teacher's rating. Much has been documented about how flawed the data are--there was insufficient roster verification, for starters. But even if the data were rock solid, publishing just one evaluation metric in isolation will always paint an incomplete picture of teacher performance. These kinds of actions only reinforce the belief that too many teachers already have: that the part and parcel purpose of these new evaluation systems is just to fire a lot of teachers.

But we don't believe that is the purpose of teacher evaluation or the intention of the new generation of systems coming online. Yes, they should provide districts and principals with data that should help them to make informed HR decisions. And it's those actions that should give parents assurance that their children have effective teachers. But ultimately, if we see the crux of teacher evaluation as being a means to help all teachers grow and improve, then the reality is that some students are going to have to be in those classrooms while lower-performing teachers are trying to get better. And teachers need to be able to go to the supermarket without their job performance being public knowledge while they are trying to grow and improve.

We think Rhode Island is on a better path. The state's districts have the responsibility of ensuring that no student is placed with an ineffective teacher two years in a row. Combined with policy that clearly ties ineffective ratings to dismissal and prevents the awarding of tenure to teachers with ineffective ratings, this approach can give parents and the public confidence about the state's teaching force.