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Selective Use of Evidence to Improve Schools

When New York City's Education Department announced on Oct. 20 that it intends to release the ratings of 12,000 teachers based on student test scores, United Federation of Teachers immediately said it would seek a court order to block the move.

These developments are reminiscent of what took place in late August when the Los Angeles Times published a database of 6,000 teachers in third through fifth grades that ranked their effectiveness relative to their colleagues. The difference was that the Los Angeles Times calculated the value-added after obtaining the data under the state's Public Records Act. In New York City, it was the Education Department by itself that said it would make the information available.

What is noteworthy in both cases, however, is that the justification for publishing the data was based on assertions. It certainly was not based on empirical evidence. The truth is that we do not know if naming and shaming teachers will improve their performance. In fact, the best evidence available says just the opposite.

It comes from Finland, which is known for having the world's finest schools. Each year, 100 schools are selected for testing to determine weaknesses that should be addressed. But the test results are used strictly for diagnostic purposes. They are never made public, nor do they rank teachers or schools. The purpose is to help teachers - not pillory them. This is the antithesis of the steps taken in Los Angeles and in New York City.

This leads to the next logical question. If the goal is to seek models of successful schools abroad that can be replicated here, then why don't we follow Finland's strategy? The selective use of evidence now underway undermines confidence in the proclamation of the Education Department. It says one thing but does another. If the agenda calls for privatizing all schools, then Arne Duncan should say so. What he is doing now is a pretext for corporatizing education.

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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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