In August, New York State's Appellate Court approved the release of teacher value-added performance data in the name of “public interest.” In a precedent established by the release of teacher data by the L.A. Times last year, performance data that was never intended to be used publicly will most likely be released in New York City, pending a final appeal by the United Federation of Teachers, the city's teachers union.
The L.A. Times has said it published the ratings because “they bear on the work of public employees who provide an important service.” The New York Appellate Court similarly noted that teacher performance data “is of a compelling interest to the public, namely, the proficiency of public employees in the performance of their duties.”
The debate over the release of teacher evaluation data demonstrates the complexity of how we treat and perceive teachers. On the one hand, we expect them to be consummate professionals, beholden to the ethical and technical standards of their chosen profession. On the other hand, we consider them “public employees” who are at the bottom of a chain of command that begins with the principal, continues to the mayor or school board, and trails up to Albany, with the buck stopping, of course, in D.C.
Teachers are therefore bestowed with a bipolar status that swings between the high status accorded to professionals such as brain surgeons and the low status of an army grunt.
As an educator, I can tell you that indeed, we are both. And I think this is OK. When you go into - some would say “are called into” - the teaching profession, you go in knowing that it is one of the toughest jobs in the world, and that most of the hard work will go unrecognized, except for those spare moments of glory when a student comes back to tell you what a difference you made in their life. And you go in knowing that working as a public employee means abiding by some mandates from our superiors that can be troubling at the least, and a violation of our (and our students') rights at the worst, (which is why we have unions – but that's a topic beyond the scope of this piece).
It is therefore imperative that when we talk about accountability we specify whether we are discussing professional accountability to the ethical and technical standards of the teaching profession, or to public accountability as public employees. If we are referring to the first, then we can talk about individual teachers. If we are referring to the latter, then we should refer up the chain of command.
I'm afraid that this perspective is lost on the public, however, when a newspaper hastily moves to publish individual teacher value-added scores. What we have instead amounts to a public shaming of teachers who have dutifully undertaken the requisite classes in their higher ed programs, followed the orders of their superiors, passed the certification exams - in other words, done everything our current laws, structures, and policies demand - to become a classroom teacher. If we are to view this data publicly, the blame for low performance cannot and should not be poured onto the backs of these individual public employees. The blame must be directed up the chain of command.
As an educator working in a high needs school, I am disheartened by the push to release teacher performance data. I fail to see how demonizing individual teachers will better my profession. Using teachers as political pawns in a drive to demonstrate the failure of public schools systems is a cruel and cynical way to try to improve schools.
Instead of shaming “bad” teachers, we should focus on ennobling the profession by giving greater voice and leadership opportunities to the vast majority of teachers who are good.
Last year, as part of the VIVA Project, I worked with a group of teachers in New York to draft a set of policy recommendations for implementing a new teacher evaluation system. We met both with New York State Education Commisioner John King and New York State United Teachers' Vice President Maria Neira to discuss and advocate for our recommendations. At the national level, other VIVA teachers met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss their proposals for improving teacher training. We demonstrated that classroom teachers can and should be part of viable policy discussions, not merely the end receivers of policies handed down to us.
Alienating teachers as public employees will not aid in the cause of education reform. Instead, try recognizing us for the professional knowledge and expertise we hold. Try putting us on educational policy discussion panels and getting us involved in the decision-making process.
We aren't interested in political theater; we simply want to see our students and our schools become the best they can be, and be given the support and tools we need to best wield our expertise. I think that's a cause the public can rally behind.
Mark Anderson is currently entering his third year teaching fifth grade special education in the Bronx, N.Y.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.