When New York City last week posted the performance ratings for thousands of its public school teachers online, it raised concerns about the fairness of the data and the accuracy of the ratings themselves.
It also brought up questions on this side of the Hudson River as to whether public grades for teachers would be coming to New Jersey next, as this state develops its own teacher evaluation system.
Yesterday, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf tried to quell worries and said he would be against public disclosure of individual teachers' scores.
"I don't believe in that," Cerf said in an interview last night. "It is counterproductive, and I believe it is not something we should put out. And especially putting that out in isolation, it's against everything we want to do."
Still, not everyone is certain that teacher rankings being developed for NJ public schools will stay private.
"In two and a half years, we have seen enough misinformation from this administration that, let's just say, our caution lights are on," said Steve Wollmer, communications director of the New Jersey Education Association.
Nevertheless, it was an interesting comment from Cerf, who was the deputy chancellor of schools in New York City when that school system began to devise its evaluation process three years ago.
The public grades for New York teachers are part of an overall ratings methodology based on the achievement of students through a complicated formula that measures them against expectations.
Cerf said he never intended for the performance ratings to go public. He had an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city's teachers union, and cited a 2008 letter he sent to then UFT president Randi Weingarten making that pledge. He said he'd even help the UFT fight it in court.
"My No. 1 objective was to get the UFT to engage in a process where we were building a system and would be working at it," Cerf said yesterday.
It proved a moot point since Cerf left New York in 2009. Ultimately, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to put the scores online, even while warning that they may be imperfect. The UFT sought to block the move in state court, but the court ruled the data was public information.
Last Friday, the Bloomberg administration released the ratings for 18,000 elementary and middle school teachers, placing them each in percentile ratings based on the student achievement measures. Among the concerns, the teachers' scores appeared to have a wide margin of error and in some cases were based on the sample as small as 10 students, according to news reports.
"Our deal was trumped by the courts," Cerf said last night. "I'm not sure what happened in the end."
Whether Cerf is put in a similar position in New Jersey is yet to be seen, but the Christie administration is embarking on a similar system that will lead to new ratings for teachers, at the very least putting them each into categories from "ineffective" to "highly effective."
As much as half of their ratings could be based on student performance measures similar to those in New York, and under legislation being pressed by Christie and some Democrats, the ratings would ultimately be used in determining a teacher's tenure rights and job status.
But at least for the moment, the new teacher evaluation system here is only in a pilot phase in 11 districts, and will expand to another 30 next year before it is set to roll out statewide in 2013-2014.
When pressed whether any ratings for individual teachers would ever be made public by the Christie administration, Cerf was reluctant to promise but said he would be against it. And he didn't rule out the courts potentially intervening.
"That's not my inclination," he said. "Based on what I know now, I wouldn't."
"I happen to think we do much, much more for kids by taking struggling teachers and making them better than exiting the least effective ones," Cerf said. "And I want to do that in a slow methodical way."
Still, even the prospect of such a release left some advocates worried this weekend that public ratings may be coming in some form to New Jersey, whether or not Cerf says he supports them.
"It's a disaster that shouldn't happen anywhere, and certainly not in New Jersey," said Wollmer. "If you want to totally alienate an entire generation of teachers, that's the way to do it."
Stan Karp of the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that spearheaded the Abbott v. Burke litigation, has long been critical of Christie's and Cerf's direction with the teacher evaluation.
And he said yesterday that despite Cerf's comments, the use of student test scores opens up the possibility of misuse.
"The publication of teachers' names linked to error-filled, unreliable ratings is a formula for educational abuse and community chaos," he wrote in an email.
"The New York court ruling that the mere existence of such information makes it subject to disclosure requests from the media and others is one more reason to slow down the current rush to mandate test-based ratings systems for teacher evaluation."