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What Should Parents Know About Teacher Evaluation Results?

This new Center for American Progress report arguing against the publication of value-added teacher ratings is somewhat odd, largely because it feels primarily reactionary ("here are some stupid things people have done or are considering doing with teacher value-added data and why you shouldn't do them") as opposed to proactive ("here's what a smart policy and journalistic approach for providing the public and parents with useful information about teacher effectiveness would look like"). I'd sure love to see the latter, as this is a serious issue that deserves more conversation in the debate about teacher effectiveness. I mean, earlier this year Illinois passed legislation that requires teacher evaluations, based in part on student learning, to be used in making personnel decisions--but does not allow the public (including parents of students in a teacher's class) to be informed of an individual teacher's ratings. Is this good or bad? Discuss.

That said, a few things that are pretty clear:

1. Publishing a ranking of teachers, by name, based on value-added data alone, in the local newspaper for all to see, with no context to help the public or parents understand the limitations or quirks of the data, is really, really, really far away from optimal teacher evaluation policy.
2. If policymakers are going to go to the trouble of developing well-thought out teacher evaluations that include student learning data, high-quality observations, and other factors, it's dumb, counter-productive, and confusing to have media publishing and focusing on a single aspect of those evaluations (such as value-added alone).
3. Someone in the media is probably going to deal irresponsibly with whatever data is produced, but that's not necessarily a good argument for non-transparency. It's also not productive to design a system based on fears information will be used poorly, but instead to try to educate and provide high-quality information to mitigate the damage.

The thing that people really need to think carefully about here is what kind of information we owe to parents about their children's teacher and how to communicate that to them. I understand the arguments against providing parents information about the effectiveness of individual teachers: There's the potential to lead to the worst kind of zero-sum parent engagement in which the most savvy and pushy parents agitate to get their kids into the classrooms of the "best" teachers and kids with less savvy (or simply more polite) parents get left behind. And telling parents their child's teacher is ineffective also seems cruel in an environment where they may have little ability to do anything about it.

But ultimately, it's just terribly, terribly condescending to suggest that parents can't handle or don't deserve to see information that exists about how the people to whom they entrust their children for several hours a day are doing their jobs. Given what we know about the impact of teacher effectiveness on student learning, particularly when elementary-school aged children have consecutive ineffective teachers, how can we honestly say we shouldn't let parents know so they can, at the very least, try to find additional supports for their children?

Ultimately, this illustrates why we need to be thoughtful and cautious in thinking about how we use value-added measures. If parents have information about teachers' effectiveness, they may agitate to get their children better teachers. It may also be smart policy to prevent children (particularly in the elementary grades) from being assigned to an ineffective teacher two years in a row. Both of these factors might affect the results of value-added measures--but should we really argue that trying to preserve the fidelity of value-added measures is more important than doing the humane things for kids? We need to be thoughtful about value-added measures as one tool for better approaches to measuring teacher effectiveness, but recognize that they are not a magical black box that can tell us exactly how effective teachers are. This type of realistic approach can also help mitigate some of issues CAP is concerned about.

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