For Teachers, The Shamings Will Continue

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

The policy agenda often lumped together as “education reform” took a big step Feb. 24, when the New York City Department of Education released a set of rankings for 18,000 public school teachers. Based on students’ standardized test scores for the five years from fall 2004 to spring 2010, the “performance-based” rankings are available to the general public on the New York Times’ SchoolBook website, searchable by school or by teacher. Reformers like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have touted such data as a necessary step toward identifying both excellent and sub-par public school teachers, with an NYCDOE official pointing out that 696 teachers were ranked in the top five percent for at least two years while 521 were similarly repeat members of the bottom five percent.

At the same time, the DOE and the Times were both careful to clarify that the rankings are so imprecise and flawed as to be practically meaningless. Among other tidbits revealed by the Times, the margins of error for rankings on math and English tests were given as 35 percent and 53 percent respectively, and the highest-ranked teacher earned his place based on one year of scores from just 32 students. While it’s nice of them to warn us not to trust their own rankings, this seems like the sort of spiel you might give a compulsive gambler before handing him the keys to a condo in Vegas: What else is he supposed to do with it, and why else would you distribute it in the first place?

The point of all this ass-covering was undoubtedly to preempt the sort of backlash that erupted in 2010 when the Los Angeles Times crafted similar rankings for L.A. public school teachers. Most likely expecting to win a Pulitzer for its vital contribution to public awareness, the L.A. Timesinstead faced sustained outrage from the L.A. education community, heightened after well-regarded Miramonte Elementary School teacher Rigoberto Ruelas was so distraught by the humiliation of his low ranking that he committed suicide. But incredibly, reformers in New York appear to have concluded that as long as they spend enough time admonishing people not to use the rankings for their only logical purpose, publicly shaming teachers based on capricious test score data is still just fine.

Think of the message all of this is sending to teachers. Not only are public officials refusing to listen to their policy recommendations — adopting the framing promoted by Michelle “Children First” Rhee, in which the central dispute in education policy is the interests of children versus those of educators — but they seem to have forgotten anything their own math teachers might have told them about the proper use of statistics. Perhaps if more of these reform-touting bureaucrats were forced to sit in on public high school classes, they’d learn how to figure out that in a completely randomranking of 18,000 teachers over five years, the number that would place in the top or bottom five percent for two or more years is roughly 407. (I’m not that adept with stats myself, but fortunately I don’t rely on the New York Times to stay informed; the equations were demonstrated in the comments on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at The Atlantic.)

The disregard for teachers this entails is beyond insulting and would be easier to chalk up to innocent stupidity were it not part of a broader pattern of degradation. For instance, implicit in the demonization of teachers’ unions and the push for largely non-unionized charter schools is that non-union teachers can be worked for longer hours and lower pay, letting politicians from John Kasich to Adrian Fenty disguise a cost-cutting measure borne entirely by teachers as a vital reform. And well-intentioned though its participants may be, programs like the widely touted Teach for America reinforce the view of teaching as a second-rate profession, signaling that the most we expect from our best and brightest is to dabble as amateurs for a couple years (because only those losers who go into education for life would need years of training to become effective teachers) before going on to become lawyers or stockbrokers the way anybody with real talent should.

As much as defenders of public education point it out and as much as policymakers ignore it, it’s worth noting yet again that in many of the countries whose students outscoring ours on international assessments is supposed to be the problem to begin with, such treatment of educators would be all but unthinkable. Teaching is a respected and high-paid profession in European social democracies, and selectivity for their rigorous and tuition-free teacher training programs is as high as for the financier training programs at prestigious U.S. business schools. The fact that standardized tests are both less common and assessed more cautiously in such countries than in the United States makes it all the more impressive when they’re able to beat us at the very game of test score ranking we’ve embraced with such zeal.

By contrast, the U.S. model for increasing the quality of our teachers has come to follow the old adage that the beatings will continue until morale improves. It’s nice when some of the chief enablers of this teacher-degrading culture speak out against the most egregious practices, as reform champion Bill Gates did in a recent op-ed criticizing public rankings like New York’s, but they that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind. Except in this case, while the wind is being sown by an unelected group of well-meaning but clueless billionaire philanthropists like Gates, reaping the true whirlwind is every educator, family and child who depends on America’s public schools.