Troubling repercussions from the Boston decision on teacher evaluations

The new teacher evaluation system, adopted in Massachusetts, is an important tool in our efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our public schools. We have long needed to replace the cursory system of checking a few boxes labeled “satisfactory,” replacing it with a thoughtful series of rubrics based on essential components of high-quality instruction.

As an evaluator, I have worked very hard to build trust and understanding on the part of my staff. I have encouraged them to set ambitious goals for themselves and their students. I have set high expectations, including the understanding that not everyone is proficient in all aspects of the art of teaching.

Unfortunately, all of this hard work is in jeopardy, as the Supervisor of Records in the Secretary of State’s office has ruled that the Boston Public Schools must release teacher ratings aggregated by school. The Boston Globe requested the data, and intends to publish it as a measure of the quality of a school.

This ruling is laced with unintended and harmful consequences. As the principal of a small school, I know that one or two ratings of less than proficient would certainly lead to speculation as to which teacher received the low rating. It would be impossible to give a single teacher an unsatisfactory rating without that lone rating pointing to the teacher who received that evaluation, a disclosure that would undermine the confidentiality of individual evaluations, a confidentiality that is protected under the public records law.

Publishing aggregate scores will lead to the possibility that evaluators will be influenced by the publication of scores. Will evaluators inflate the results in order to give the appearance of a better school? Would there be an incentive to rate educators more harshly in order to give the appearance of holding staff to higher standards? Evaluators need to be insulated from external pressures that would potentially undermine the validity of the evaluation.

It is particularly troubling that Boston, with a plethora of small schools, isn’t challenging the Secretary of State’s decision through the courts. By releasing the school-by-school ratings, Boston would be setting a precedent that makes it more difficult for other districts to resist.

Releasing aggregate ratings at the school level was never a goal of the teacher evaluation system. It is not an effective metric for the quality of a school, a measure that is effectively reported through the state’s school accountability system.  It will not benefit any public purpose, but would interfere with an evaluator’s efforts to promote continuous improvement among educators.

As an educator, and not an attorney, I don’t know what we need to do to overturn this ill-conceived ruling by the Secretary of State. I don’t know if the Boston Teachers’ Union has the standing or ability to request judicial review of this decision. However, as the finding is based on an interpretation of the public records law, one solution is legislative. I intend to contact my state representative and state senator in the morning, asking for legislative action that would block the release of school-level aggregate evaluation scores, and would allow us to implement the new evaluation system in a rigorous and trusting context.

2 Replies to “Troubling repercussions from the Boston decision on teacher evaluations”

  1. You write: “It would be impossible to give a single teacher an unsatisfactory rating without that lone rating pointing to the teacher who received that evaluation” Please explain how that would be possible if the ratings are reported in aggregate?

  2. Let’s say I have a small staff of 12 teachers, which is not unusual for an elementary school. I have one teacher with some concerns, so I want to give him a rating of “needs improvement.” What would happen? I would get a schoolyard full of parents speculating as to which teacher got the “needs improvement” rating. The parents might get it right, in which case the privacy afforded under the regulations would be violated. The parents might get it wrong, in which case the wrong teacher would be tainted by the rating.

    If I hire a new teacher, I wouldn’t expect that first-year teacher to be proficient. I would expect there to be skills the teacher needs to work on to gain proficiency. If I have a new teacher on the staff, and suddenly my school that has 12 proficient teachers now has 11 proficient and 1 “needs improvement,” it is pretty obvious who is getting the rating. The incentive would be to lower the standard to protect the new teacher from the public declaration of the teacher’s rating.

    The MA regulations (603 CMR 35.11) state:

    (6) Any data or information that school districts or the Department or both create, send, or receive in connection with educator evaluation that is evaluative in nature and may be linked to an individual educator, including information concerning an educator’s formative assessment or evaluation or summative evaluation or performance rating or the student learning, growth, and achievement data that may be used as part of an individual educator’s evaluation, shall be considered personnel information within the meaning of M.G.L. c. 4, § 7(26)(c) and shall not be subject to disclosure under the public records law.

    This would certainly be compromised by disclosure of teacher ratings at a local level.

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