‘Don’t Yelp Us!’ Debate Over Teacher Evaluation Data Spawns a New Bad Idea

releasing_teacher_evaluation_dataThe debate surrounding teacher privacy, transparency and student test scores reemerged recently when a parent in Loudon County, VA, filed a lawsuit against state officials requesting the release of the state’s teacher evaluation data.

Brian Davison, a father of kindergarten and third-grade public school students, filed a Freedom of Information Act in March pressing for the disclosure of teacher ratings. Davison believes that parents need this data – which is based on student test scores – to determine whether their children’s educators are performing up to par.

The Virginia Education Association and state education officials are challenging the suit, arguing release of such information would present at best an incomplete picture of teacher effectiveness, violate privacy and needlessly damage reputations.

In 2011, Virginia began collecting student growth percentiles (SGP) from standardized test results to calculate student academic growth from year to year. However, the state passed a law in 2013 making “teacher performance indicators” confidential, finding that such data proved to be unreliable measures of teacher quality.

No single score can be considered an accurate measure of the learning that goes on in a classroom or an accurate assessment of the teacher in that classroom, explains Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association.

“There is no way that a number can sum up how effective someone is at reaching and teaching our students,” says Gruber “People are going to be blamed without any understanding of their context, their classroom, [or] their students. It would be like saying journalists are ineffective because newspaper circulation is going down or fewer people are watching the news.”

Because of privacy issues and the incomplete picture of teacher performance it presents, very few states release teacher evaluation data to the public.

Because of privacy issues and the incomplete picture of teacher performance it presents, very few states release teacher evaluation data to the public.

Creating Metrics on Educators

The controversy over releasing teacher evaluation data to the public initially broke out in 2010, when the Los Angeles Times published a database containing thousands of the city’s school district’s elementary school teachers’ names and their respective ratings. The data used English and math test scores to assess students’ academic progress and their teachers’ effectiveness. The newspaper’s decision was widely denounced, including by many who generally support the prominent use of value-added data in teacher evaluations.

The push to release this data soon cooled off. Only in a handful of states, including Florida, New York, and Michigan do parents have access to teacher evaluations, and some states have recently passed legislation to prevent releasing data to the public. Arkansas and Indiana require schools to report teachers’ average performance while shielding individual identities.

Unfortunately, a nagging sense that parents are somehow being shortchanged by denying them a public arena for evaluating teachers persists. Recently, Yahoo! political blogger and former New York Times reporter Matt Bai generated some buzz with a column titled, “A Yelp for Teachers.”

Bai uses the Virginia lawsuit as a springboard to argue that if districts won’t release evaluation data, then parents should have a place to create their own metrics.

“Let’s have a discussion about transparency about accountability …How is it that the business of teaching has somehow eluded the most ubiquitous and influential form of evaluation in modern America? I’m talking about customer feedback,” Bai writes.

Bai rips a couple of pages out of the education reformers’ playbook. His arguments tap into the persistent misperception that what’s good for the private sector must also be good for public education (“We review Amazon products, Uber drivers, sellers on Ebay, but about the only thing you can’t find online is which seventh-grade math teacher is best for your kid”) and he predictably resorts to hackneyed attacks on teacher unions (“defenders of the status quo”).

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, dissected the substance of the  proposal on his blog, exlaining the challenges of getting reliable data and pinpointing a problem that is already rampant in countless Yelp reviews:

“Voluntary participation would insure that the few who left comments would really mean what they said, but only teachers who evoked particularly strong feelings would elicit comments– twenty-five sets of parents from my class might say nothing because they think I do a fine regular old vanilla job, but the twenty-sixth parent, who’s angry about how Little Chris flunked for never doing work, might blow me up.”

Greene also points out that the quality of the  “product” isn’t known for years.  “‘Every high school teacher has stories of the kid who comes back years later to say, ‘Boy, at the time, I hated you and I hated your class. But I want to thank you because it turned out you were right to push me,'” he writes.

‘Just the Wrong Way to Go About It’

Educators are not opposed to accountability and feedback, says Prudence Plunkett, a library media specialist and former classroom teacher in Alaska.

“Accountability has to be done reasonably and appropriately and should be between teachers and administrators because that’s their job,” explains Plunkett.  “I understand why some parents would want to tell everyone, ‘Here’s what I think about teacher A,’ but using a site like Yelp is just the wrong way to go about it.”

Two businessmen with their respective "products" - at least according to a Yahoo! columnist.

Two businessmen with their respective “products” – at least according to a Yahoo! columnist.

“The trend over the past few years is to make everything public. But there are things that shouldn’t be public,” Plunkett continues. “Instead of really trying to solve poblems and discussing issues one-on-one, you just post it your thoughts online! There’s no room for nuance.”

Matt Bai was clearly not looking for nuance, just clicks mostly. He’s right about one thing: we should have that discussion about accountability and transparency. But let’s take into account the unique, daily challenges educators face with individual students and supply the assistance and resources they need to improve learning, says VEA President Meg Gruber.

“What we really need to be doing is providing the supports that students and teachers need to do their best: smaller class sizes, good professional development, up-to-date textbooks and technology,” says Gruber. “That’s what’s good for kids.”

It’s a point echoed by “Natalie,” a teacher who after reading Bai’s column was compelled to provide her own feedback in the comment section of his post:

“Teachers have many bosses. Lawmakers, superintendents, principals, parents, just to name a few. All of them tell us how to make our classroom successful, but they don’t always give us the tools to do so. In addition, we are constantly having funding cut, more testing added, and less instructional time to make the students global learners. …Don’t Yelp us! We have enough critics who make themselves heard.  Fund the work I do daily and protect the little privacy that I have.”

  • Ysbeth

    If the test scores for the students of a particular teacher are much lower year after year than they are for other teachers in that school (and there isn’t a good reason for it such as that teacher being the special ed teacher) then parents do have the right to know. Consistently lower test scores, compared to other teachers in the same school, would suggest a substandard teacher.

    • Stephanie Fox

      Maybe they are the teacher that talked on the students that struggle more than others. One of my colleagues gets some kids to pass that no other teacher could have. Not all of her students pass, but she does better than the ready of us with struggling learners. I get more gifted students that will be successful regardless of the teacher. My pass rate was better Than hers. But she is a better educator.

      • Jadzia

        Agreed, Stephanie. I work with at-risk youth. Basically, their attendance sucks. So I am going to be held responsible for this while the AP teachers who only get the future doctors and lawyers are held responsible for all the geniuses. Where’s the fairness in that?

        • RiverOfLife

          I agree with what you are saying, but the other side of the argument is that the lower-achieving kids have more room for growth so when the teachers are scored on the year to year improvement of their students, the lower-achieving students can actually show a bigger percentage of improvement versus a student who has made straight A’s since kindergarten.
          I should mention that I teach high school math, and I just got my teacher evaluation score which was fairly high, so of course I tend to think the system is fair. However, I also realize that each teacher gets a different “hand”, like in a poker game, and the scoring system can not take that into account, so there is some inherent unfairness. Administrators should be able to take that into account, given their personal knowledge of the individual situations, but I’m afraid that parents will not have the knowledge or objectivity. If a teacher scores 5% lower than another teacher, then many parents will demand their kid be transferred to the teacher with the slightly higher score. If this happens, it will be grossly unfair to the teachers and will hurt education in general.

          • What!!

            I always scored fairly high too, but it is an unfair way to calculate all I do for kids. The scoring rubric is standardized so all teachers teach the same way, our materials are becoming standardized, and our actions like robots. Follow the rubric and score high. The prediction scores can be wrong, and the data is interpreted in the way an individual wants to see it. There is to much play with these scores for an accurate reading and they do not account for all a teacher does. Next year there will be an expectation for you to make those scores higher. I really think that if our programs are standardized and the rubrics are standardized, then who are they scoring? All I do is read the script of what I am given so they must be scoring their own standardization. It is not my work.

          • RiverOfLife

            I’m very fortunate to work for a principal who feels the same way as you do about the scoring. He has promised us that he will act as a buffer, and interpret the scores in the context of each teacher’s circumstances. Of course, the district could override that in the future, but so far, we have the ability to teach as we see fit, as long as we cover the objectives and get positive results. Personally, I believe in giving kids second chances on quizzes and chapter tests, so I do, and it has paid off in my kids getting great standardized test scores at the end of the year.

          • Jadzia

            But the problem with showing “growth” is that each year in science is a different subject. The kids need each Regents exam to graduate. A kid who did well in Earth Science as a freshman but terrible in Biology as a sophomore is not necessarily lack of growth OR incompetent teaching. The subjects are not related that much. It could just be the kid likes one and not the other or is better at one than the other. It’s comparing apples to oranges. Again, none of this addresses the attendance issue my students have. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to teach kids I have never met.

      • cathylees

        Nice of you to realize that. Most teachers of the gifted do not.

    • Jadzia

      Ysbeth, for the teachers who consistently work with at-risk kids, our scores WILL be consistently lower than the teachers with seniority who teach college bound advanced placement students and honor students. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad teacher. Other teachers in my district have already tried to work with these kids and failed. Even if I can get half of them to pass, that’s progress, but I won’t be evaluated like that.

  • Paula

    Here is a questions for you, Ysbeth: I teach high school. When a student in the 10th grade is tested, they are tested on what they have learned during the last 10 years of their education. Why should I be the only teacher held responsible for that child’s test scores? There are many, many reasons why teachers do not like standardized testing, and that is just one of the reasons.

    • Jadzia

      I teach high school science. The kids are only tested on what I teach them that year. The common core stuff goes from 3rd grade through 8th grade, and then the high schoolers take tests on each core subject. Where and what do you teach?

  • Paula


  • Peggy Scholtes

    Fine, if they want teacher evaluations public, then teachers should be able to publicly evaluate parents. I’m sure parents won’t mind being held accountable for their part in the education of their children.

    • Jadzia

      Right….and then if parents allow their kids to go on vacation, or play video games all night, sleep in, or don’t feed them, etc. the teachers are at your mercy because you pay them?! We’re all taxpayers. I’m paying into my own salary. Then again, I make my kids go to school everyday because I know their teachers can’t teach them if they stay home.

  • Karen Kingsbury

    Brian Davison is misinformed & wrong. There are SO many factors, totally out of a classroom teacher’s control, that contribute to student assessment! Tying teacher evaluation to test scores is absolutely ludicrous!

    Superintendents’, principals’ and Music/Art/PE/ teachers’, psychologists’, guidance counselors’, Speech & Language pathologists’, physical therapists’, occupational therapists’, Special Ed. teachers’ and Reading/Math specialists’ evaluations should ALSO be tied to student performance, because ALL STAFF in a school system work together toward the same goal!

    • Kerry d

      I’m an art teacher….my evaluation IS tied to student performance. Matter of fact is the same rubric as a regular classroom teacher. And the majority of the items do NOT apply to elective teachers. And our scores are marked lower for it. Art is project based learnin. We see our students once a week sometimes once every other week. For maybe 30 minutes. In the real world we don’t have time for small group and peer talk and still create the master pieces everyone expects from children who don’t own crayons at home and have never held a pair scissors. Paras??? Nope! Just us and 35 kids and trying to keep them from cutting their hair. So yes. We have our own struggles. And we are evaluated based on student performance as well.

  • Karen Kingsbury

    I also forgot to mention that the “balance” of the class has a HUGE impact on student test scores, as well! One year, the make-up of my class was 7 students with identified, special needs, 7 ELL students & 8 students “on grade level “. Of course, those determinations were made by previous teachers!

  • Karen Kingsbury

    And parents are told that the classes are heterogeneous! Yeah, right!

  • cathylees

    So if you release the teacher’s test scores, do you also release that one child missed 92 days of school, another miss 87 days (so far, but there are 23 days left), two children are chronically late–missing math everyday, 5 came to school knowing no English, 3 are homeless and have been shuffled between relatives and motels ( and the car) all year, one transferred from Las Vegas (in April) where there were 44 kindergartners in her class, one child comes to school with the same clothes for two weeks straight, and that the teacher started the year with no classroom budget and 7 books in her classroom? This is my classroom this year. I am proud that despite this, 82% met the standard, but our district demands 100%.

  • eladio

    What can we do with our corrupted political system and our politicians doing whatever they want just to get VOTES for the next election period? At this time nothing unless we go to civil disobedience challenging absurd legislation.

  • Kellerie

    Why exactly should the parents be rating the teachers? No parents ever sit in my classes. Parents are not completing the assignments. I am not in the business of educating parents. I am not opposed to my high school students “rating” me on on a website (although I don’t think it will give a completely true picture) because they are the ones I actually work with. For the record, I do give my students an anonymous survey every year, asking them to assess me in different ways – what did they learn, what things did they like, what didn’t they like, what should I change? I feel that I need to know the students’ opinions so I can make sure I’m being as effective as possible. But honestly? I really don’t care what the parents think. They are not my target audience, and have no idea what goes on in my room. Conversely, when my son tells me stories about his day at school, I know that I should take it with a grain of salt, as I’m not getting the big picture from him.

  • Rosa D Thaemert

    Some kids do not come learning ready or socially ready to do school. Students that have issues at home, will bring those issues to school and it impacts learning.Teachers do their best to fill in the gaps. Behavioral issues impact an entire classroom’s learning, disturbances, time taken away from teaching to take care of constant distractions in the classroom. If Johnny is constantly talking, acting out or possibly violent in the classroom, the other students are impacted. The teacher goes from instruction of all students to doing damage controll for one student. These are facts that many parents won’t acknowledge that they play a part in. The perfect classroom environment does not exist. Too many extenuating circumstances play into daily education. The bigger the class size gets, a teachers’ job begins to resemble a monitor for a containment center. No teaching, just crowd controll.
    Funding needs to be met. Stop penalizing educators because we are unable to wear all hats for every parent, every social need, every cultural nuance, or new law. We need fewer bosses, and for the people in charge of purse-strings, making laws and defending education, to do their jobs. Teachers have become the whipping boy for everything wrong in society.

  • James Realini

    The State of Education in this country is moving closer to the morality of Salem, Massachusetts circa 1690.

  • lucy Smith

    What we really need to be doing is providing the supports that students and teachers need to do their best.Casquette Snapback

  • Renegadegrrl

    Whichever parents have the best yelp reviews of course.