The New York City school system announced Wednesday that it will release ratings for nearly 12,000 teachers based on student test scores, potentially giving the public an unprecedented window into the effectiveness of instructors at the nation's largest school district.
The move, which the city's teachers union said it would fight, is certain to escalate a national debate over how teachers should be evaluated and what role test scores should play in the process.
The release was prompted by requests from several news organizations and follows a series of Los Angeles Times stories in August that analyzed 6,000 elementary school teachers' effectiveness in raising students' math and English scores. It was the first time such data had been made public.
New York City's Department of Education officials, who originally told union representatives that they intended to keep the sensitive information private, said they could not find an exemption to state records laws that would preclude disclosure.
"We believe the public has a right to the information," said Natalie Ravitz, a department spokeswoman.
Experts said the release of teacher scores by thedistrict could be a watershed event -- raising the likelihood of similar analyses and disclosures in other districts throughout the country.
"The pressure on getting teacher evaluations right is not going to go away," said Ted Mitchell, president of the California Board of Education.
The basic method used by the L.A. Times and New York City schools were the same -- though different in technical respects. Called value-added analysis, it uses a student's past performance on standardized tests to gauge whether a teacher is as effective as his or her peers in raising students' test scores.
New York city schools began using value-added analysis in 2008 after reaching an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers to assess instructors who taught fourth through eighth grade. But at the time, the department agreed not to release the reports to the public, nor let them factor into formal evaluations or pay. Instead, the scores were meant to help teachers understand how they could improve.
Union officials and other critics say value-added is too unreliable to be used in high-stakes decisions such as performance reviews and firings.
The New York City school system "wants to make public a group of reports based on these faulty tests, reports that also feature other incomplete and inaccurate student data. Parents have been misled enough," said union President Michael Mulgrew in a statement.
But some school districts and policymakers, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, say it brings a measure of objectivity to teacher evaluations that now depend almost exclusively on subjective assessments.
Only groups that have requested data will receive it, according to education officials. As of Wednesday afternoon, seven organizations, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, had filed requests, according to Ravitz.
L.A. Unified, the nation's second largest school district, does not now do value-added analysis of its teachers.
The Times did its own value-added analysis based on seven years of standardized test scores obtained from the school district under the state Public Records Act.
The paper published a database of 6,000 teachers in the third through fifth grades that ranked their effectiveness relative to their peers, setting off a storm of debate over the results and whether they should have been made public.
"There's no doubt that what [The Times] did out there generated a lot of conversation," said Ravitz.
Other newspapers throughout the nation have begun filing records requests to obtain value-added or raw test scores.
The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., filed a request to obtain value-added scores for Charleston teachers and published a database using the material.
Though many teachers have objected, according to reporter Diette Courrege, there are no teachers unions in the state, so the protests have had limited effect.
Douglas Ready, an assistant professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University, said that it is unclear how accurate New York's standardized tests are in measuring student learning and that value-added analysis may be too complicated for the public to understand.
Union officials said they would ask a judge to seek an injunction from the New York State Supreme Court on Thursday.
If a judge fails to grant an injunction or temporary restraining order, the district could release the scores but teachers could still take further action, said union spokesman Richard Riley.
Legal experts say the decisions will have to balance teachers' right to privacy versus the public's right to know.
"There is a compelling case to be made that this type of information does shed light on the performance of public schools, which is the goal of freedom of information laws," said David Schulz, a media law expert in Washington, D.C.
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