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NCLB Outrages

Erik Hanushek, meet the tort of “false light”

Comment by Sherman Dorn

In the New York Daily News today [see below], Stanford education professor Erik Hanushek argues that UFT [is] wrong to fight Joel Klein's attempt to release teacher data. Hanushek makes three arguments here:

  • Value-added methods are valuable even if imperfect

  • The public has a right to know about teacher effectiveness

  • Erik Hanushek personally does not want test score data to be the sole method of evaluating teachers (so you can trust his motives)

  • Problems with the op-ed, at least on first reading:

  • Feel-good/macho union-bashing. Hanushek writes, "Unfortunately, many in the schools, led by the teachers unions, are not particularly interested in entering a discussion of which teachers are performing poorly." Let's see: in the context of New York City, where there was an explicit agreement to begin to use test scores to help teachers in instruction, and where the union is out in advance of a number of its membersâ¦. Yeah, go ahead and slam one of the locals that's moved at all on test scores. That may feel good or be good "politics," but I think it's foolish.

  • Internal inconsistency. Hanushek's statement that test score data shouldn't be the only instrument to evaluate teachers flies in the face of releasing only the mediocre value-added measures that have been requested, when anyone knows that the New York tabloids will slap the "this is an effectiveness measure" label on them.

  • "The problem is so bad, it's okay if we paint teachers in a false light." Hanushek's argument essentially boils down to, "Yeah, the data's unreliable. It's better than nothing, so we should publish it." That's pretty close to reckless disregard of the truth, when you know that of the thousands of teachers whose mediocre value-added measures would be published, hundreds and hundreds would be portrayed as far less effective than they are in reality. (This is simply playing the odds.) I don't know if New York state has a tort of false light, but you have all the elements here: publication of data that the publisher knows is false (even if the publisher doesn't know which teachers the data is blatantly wrong on), and where the data is designed to shame both the schools and the individual teachers.

  • Most of the privacy-related discussion on the L.A. Times publication of a teacher database focused on issues that are probably not actionable in court, because the newspaper could defend teacher effectiveness (however framed) as newsworthy. "False light" is a different story. Note: my understanding is that torts based on violations of privacy are only a little over a century old, and they're fairly dependent on state-specific case law, especially false-light lawsuits. But I think the notion of "false light" is the right one here.

    UFT wrong to fight Joel Klein's attempt to release teacher data, says leading education researcher

    By Eric Hanushek

    New York Daily News

    New York City's schools chancellor, with the support of Mayor Bloomberg, wants to release the value-added test score results for 12,000 teachers - revealing for parents and the public the student learning gains attributable to each instructor. News organizations have requested the data; the city is ready to comply. The city's United Federation of Teachers has challenged the release, and a judge will decide next month.

    I've spent many years looking carefully at such data. I know it can be incendiary; I know it has flaws. Still, I strongly support its release.

    Two principles lie behind this view. First, parents and taxpayers have a basic right to know about the effectiveness of the teachers and schools that they support. Second, it is impossible to think of improving our schools without focusing on the productivity of the teachers.

    Teacher quality is the single most important factor inside a school in driving student performance. My research has shown, for example, that the best teachers can get a year and a half of achievement gain from their students, while the worst get only a half-year gain. In other words, over a single academic year, two students who start with the same knowledge can end up a full year different in learning at the end of the year.

    Value-added analysis is the best tool we have available to zero in on the impact of the individual teacher on student achievement gains. Using it, we can begin to distinguish between the best teachers and the worst, so we can begin rewarding the best while learning from their successes and improving - or removing - the worst.

    Yes, it's true: Value-added analysis is not perfect. First, it only measures performance in the areas that are tested - typically, math and reading but not science, social studies or other areas of teacher influence. Second, the statistical measures include some errors in assessing teacher performance because the tests themselves are inaccurate assessments of knowledge. New York has had recent history with test scores being recalibrated, which has led thousands of parents to start questioning the testing regime.

    Ideally, value-added data would be used as just one component of a multifaceted evaluation system that would also combine principal evaluations and other assessments of teacher quality to create a nuanced picture of each teacher's quality.

    But to say that value-added systems are imperfect is not to say that they are worthless. They are very worthwhile.

    Unfortunately, many in the schools, led by the teachers unions, are not particularly interested in entering a discussion of which teachers are performing poorly, because they have generally committed to defending all teachers, and such information makes their defense difficult.

    — Sherman Dorn


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