A Victory for School Reform

A week after Governor Cuomo and the teachers union agreed on a new, more robust system to evaluate public school teachers, the city released data reports measuring the performance of about 18,000 of the city’s 75,000 public school teachers. Advocates of educational accountability have good reason to cheer.

The battle to make the teacher ratings public was long and difficult, thanks to the predictable efforts of the United Federation of Teachers, which devoted a portion of its vast resources and energy to keeping the ratings away from the prying eyes of parents and taxpayers. The UFT was not particularly gracious in defeat—it never is. Union head Michael Mulgrew said the city’s Department of Education should “be ashamed of itself.” Shame, it should be noted, is not a characteristic we associate with the UFT.

The ratings are not perfect. The information is old—the ratings cover the academic years of 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10—and about 23 percent of the teachers who were evaluated no longer are in the classroom.

Critics point out that the ratings—which were based on student performance in standardized tests—were never intended to become public. Former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein initiated the data reports as a management tool within the Department of Education. But the study was, after all, carried out with taxpayer funds and so was subject to public review.

Kudos to news organizations, including the New York Post and The New York Times, that demanded copies of the reports. The UFT fought a battle in the courts for nearly 18 months to prevent the information from going public, but, fortunately, accountability and transparency carried the day.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott echoed the argument of some critics when he reminded teachers and principals that the data reports were never intended for public consumption. Faced with the inevitable, however, Mr. Walcott rightly noted that the reports cannot and should not be used “in isolation.” That is absolutely true—the full measure of a teacher’s performance cannot be gauged by standardized test scores alone.

All the more reason for a truly robust and comprehensive system to evaluate teachers and principals alike. The union has to realize, after so many defeats in the court of public opinion, that the status quo is unacceptable. Public education—in New York City and elsewhere—simply cannot remain firmly entrenched in the 20th century.

New York, it should be noted, is not the only city to make this information available to the public. Teacher ratings in Los Angeles were published in the Los Angeles Times last year—against the local union’s wishes.

It is not too much to demand that a vast, publicly funded institution be accountable to the public at large. This is the new normal in public education. And that’s a good thing.