A ‘scarlet letter’ for bad teachers?

Today Indiana residents can go to the State Department of Education website and learn which schools in their community have earned As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs from the state. In the future, will we be able to find out which teachers are rated as highly effective, effective, improvement needed and ineffective?

Probably, even though the state the law that prescribes a new system of teacher evaluation was supposed to prevent that from happening.

The law, Senate Enrolled Act 1, orders schools to adopt an evaluation system that rates all teachers by those four categories of effectiveness. It requires school districts to report aggregate data on their teachers’ ratings to the Department of Education once a year – i.e., how many are rated highly effective, how many are ineffective and so on. But those reports, the law says, may not include names or any other personally identifiable information regarding the teachers.

So we presumably won’t be able to get information about individual teachers from DOE officials, because they won’t have it. But can we get it from local school districts?

Maybe. If a school district has a list of teachers and their effectiveness ratings, it would be a public record. If we make a request under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act to inspect or copy the list, the district would arguably have to make it available. It wouldn’t appear to fall under any of the exceptions in Section 4 of the act, which lists types of records that don’t have to be made public.

School attorneys may dispute this. They could argue that evaluations won’t have to be disclosed because they are part of teachers’ personnel files. But even if they’re right, there are two ways in which some information about evaluations will become public.

First, SEA 1 specifies that teachers who are rated ineffective or improvement necessary may not receive any increase in pay. It’s well established that salaries for employees of public schools are public information. (Some newspapers make such data available online). Once the new law is in effect, we can compare any teacher’s salary for 2012-13 and 2013-14. If the teacher gets a raise, we know he or she was rated effective or highly effective. If not, we may surmise otherwise.

Second, SEA 1 says schools should avoid putting a student in a classroom taught by an ineffective teacher for two straight years. But if the school can’t avoid doing so – for example, the student had an ineffective teacher in third grade and the school has only one fourth-grade teacher, who is also ineffective – then the school must inform the student’s parents. There’s nothing to stop the parents from going public.

Interestingly, it’s not just teachers unions that think this is a bad idea. The National Council on Teacher Quality, in a lengthy report that largely praises Indiana and a few other states for their changes in teacher evaluation, calls this a “scarlet letter” approach and says it is bad policy.

“NCTQ thinks this does a tremendous disservice to the teaching profession,” the report says. “If a district has evidence that a teacher is ineffective, state policy should provide the means for the district to take the necessary steps to remove the individual from the classroom, not humiliate the teacher. Reporting on teacher effectiveness data by the state, district and school level is essential. But when it comes to accountability for ineffective teachers, sending a note home to let families know their child’s teacher is not so good is no solution at all.”