Sometimes I wonder why they call it "yellow journalism." When I read some of the tabloids around the state — to me, no more credible or tasteful than the "trash talk" some junior high students text each other — I see red.
As NYSUT president, I have taken more than a few of their sensationalized insults. At times, they've been personal. But that comes with this position, and I am more than happy to take it on in defense of the tireless efforts of those we represent. However, that shouldn't be the case for individual public workers, particularly educators. They didn't sign up for ridicule and public harassment.
Let me introduce you to an excellent teacher in an excellent school. I'll call her Angela. She is the gold standard of teaching and the gold standard of what's wrong with tabloid hucksters seeking headlines that mock working people to sell papers.
Angela teaches immigrant children who speak little or no English. Her sixth-graders frequently take state tests in English and math even when they've been in her classroom — in fact, in this country — for only a few months. She is so hard working and skilled, her principal has said she wouldn't hesitate putting her own children in Angela's class.
So, imagine her shock and hurt when headlines declared her the "Worst Teacher in New York City" after the city betrayed its teachers by failing to argue against the release of more than 12,000 teachers' ratings — widely misleading ratings by the city's own statements — based solely on grossly inaccurate student test data.
One paper shamelessly ran a deliberately unflattering picture of Angela on the front page, revealed her salary and sent reporters to harass her at home. They banged on windows and questioned her father, demanding to know what he thought of his daughter, "the worst teacher in the city." Twice, police had to be called.
Of course, it came as no surprise to anyone who knows Angela that her ratings — the byproduct of flawed methodology and invalid measurements — were wrong.
Only after her reputation was sullied, and too late to avoid the confusing feelings of shame and embarrassment accompanying this kind of malicious attack, did the public learn that the Board of Education "imputed" test scores for her and others. "Imputed," by the way, is bureaucratic speak for invented — made up.
When I talk to teachers, they get it. They want to put the needs of children first and they know that teacher accountability and continual growth are critical to student learning. They understand the vitally important role parents play in a child's education. They understand that parents have a right to information about their child's educational experience and that accurate, meaningful information in an appropriate context helps both the teacher and the student maximize teaching and learning.
And they know assuring parents that their child's teacher is a dedicated, skilled and caring professional — strengthening the bond between parent and teacher — is achievable without allowing broad, public dissemination of teachers' names and ratings. When teachers are not up to the task, that, too, should be among the teacher, parent and principal; not an opportunity to sell newspapers or increase your Twitter and Facebook followers and friends by vilifying others.
Even some of education's "heavy hitters" — people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — get it. They believe, like we do, that if we are serious about improving teacher effectiveness through rigorous yet fair evaluations, we must not thwart that effort by rating teachers publicly.
Can a balance that addresses the appropriate needs and concerns of parents, teachers, principals and school officials — not to mention students — be achieved? Can we maximize the value of the teacher evaluation process without the public shaming of teachers? Can we prevent a tragic story like Angela's from recurring, yet still keep parents well informed?
Are we, finally, ready to abandon the notion that all that matters is what you can measure — accurately or inaccurately?
The answer to all these questions, I believe, is yes.
This leaves one question still to be answered:
Are Albany's elected officials prepared to put educational excellence ahead of political posturing?