New York City Discloses Teacher-Ranking Data After Court Ruling

New York City released performance ratings for 17,666 of its more than 70,000 teachers that are based on student test scores and sociological variables, which union officials and other critics called unreliable.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who released the information today under a state appellate court order issued last week, said he had fought attempts by the news media to obtain the grades because of concerns for teachers’ privacy and statistical imperfections that limit the data’s value.

“I don’t want our teachers disparaged in any way based on this information,” Walcott told reporters during a briefing at the Education Department’s offices near City Hall. “It’s old data and it’s just one piece of information.”

The ratings are based on criteria that changed during three school years, reflecting new approaches to evaluating teachers and the switch to a different company after the 2007-2008 school term.

They helped identify 133 teachers among 4,000 up for tenure who consistently scored in the bottom 5 percent. Of those, 36 percent were granted tenure anyway, said Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, chief academic officer for the largest U.S. school system. Principals have been asked to use the data for about a fifth of their basis for evaluating a teacher’s performance, Walcott said.

‘Flawed Formula’

The release triggered union protests including a newspaper advertising campaign attacking the data’s reliability. The city “has combined bad tests, a flawed formula and incorrect data to mislead tens of thousands of parents,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement sent by e-mail.

U.S. states and local school districts are developing data systems to show how much individual teachers contribute to student achievement. The aim: measuring pupils’ improvement during their time in class, taking into account their skills when they enter. Districts would then combine these measures with more subjective evaluations, such as observation by principals. It’s a shift from gauging teacher quality by the number of years on the job or advanced degrees.

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, in a New York Times op-ed article this week, called the release of the New York City data a “big mistake.”

“Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment,” he wrote. “Those who believe we can do it on the cheap -- by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public -- are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.”

Margin of Error

In New York, when determining a teacher’s rank in comparison with peers, the scores on average contain a 35 percentage-point margin of error for math teachers and a 53 percentage-point margin of error for English teachers in middle school. Depending on an educator’s experience and number of students in class, the error margins could be as high as 75 percentage points in math and 87 points in English, Polakow-Suransky said.

In 2010, more than a dozen media companies filed requests under the state Freedom of Information Law seeking teacher-performance data from the Education Department. The UFT sued the city to prevent the release. Earlier this month, the state’s highest court refused to hear an appeal of an earlier ruling requiring disclosure.

Last month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that New York state would have to return $700 million if it didn’t fulfill its promise to President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program to implement teacher evaluations. The president, a Democrat, has proposed $5 billion in incentives for states and school districts to tie teacher pay to performance as part of his $69.8 billion education-budget proposal.

The Education Department is part of the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

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