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Why Not Name and Shame Teachers?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan's speech delivered in Little Rock, Ark. put an end to any doubt about the Obama administration's position on full disclosure of teachers who fail to boost their students' standardized test scores. In unambiguous language, he declared: "The truth is always hard to swallow, but it can only make us better, stronger and smarter."

So let's take a closer look at the "truth" as Duncan sees it. What is the ostensible purpose of publishing the names of teachers whose students do not make progress on these closely watched tests, as opposed to publishing the names of teachers whose students do? If it is to punish teachers by humiliating them, then Duncan is absolutely correct. There is nothing more painful than seeing one's name displayed with the equivalent of a scarlet letter next to it. Hester Prynne knows how that feels.

But if the purpose is to help teachers improve, then the strategy is totally counterproductive. Teachers who are ineffective don't deliberately choose to be that way. They either are not fully aware of their shortcomings or they don't know how to overcome them. In either case, there is no intent on their part. This distinction is crucial because the punishment has to fit the crime. If there is no intent, then the behavior is not criminal - at least not in this country.

As a result, by figuratively putting failing teachers in pillories in the public square, Duncan engages in colonial justice. He will certainly not get them to reform their wicked ways. In fact, he will only break their morale. If that's what he wants, I say it's more humane to fire them. After all, they shoot horses, don't they? What these teachers need instead is one last attempt to support them to transform their classes into vital places of learning.

This can be better accomplished by a series of private conferences in which the principal and department chairperson can explain the specific steps that the offending teachers can take. If the teachers are willing - and I maintain almost all will be - then they can be provided mentors from their subject field to partner with them to design better lessons and observe them in action. This planning sequence is confidential. If at the end of a stipulated date, teachers have not shown progress, then they should be cashiered.

Initially, the Los Angeles Unified School District said it planned to release data about schools and teachers. But the reaction to that plan by United Teachers Los Angeles was so strong that the district on Aug. 25 announced that it would publish only the scores of schools - not those of individual teachers. The Los Angeles Times printed a database with the rankings of about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers on Aug. 29.

What has the potential to make UTLA yield ground in its negotiations with the LAUSD is that California failed to get any portion of the second round of Race to the Top funds. Evaluators deducted 14 points because the state had an out-of-date data system in place. With California and other states in a fiscal sinkhole, pressure will likely force teachers unions to rethink their adamant strategy. But I question the wisdom of humiliating teachers.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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