Does your teacher make the grade?

As parents and educators debate the validity and effectiveness of teacher evaluations, some states, courts and teachers’ unions have doubled down on preventing personal details from evaluations from being released to the public.

State laws across the country vary greatly in terms of what in a teacher evaluation is deemed private and what is public. Some states, like Rhode Island, have specifically exempted teacher evaluations from public records laws.

The components of teacher evaluations also vary by state, but most include student scores from state standardized tests, as well as some other indicators of student achievement.

Most states also determine the ‘value added’ by teachers, meaning the difference between a student’s expected growth and actual performance on state tests. That model is an attempt to ensure teachers are not unfairly disadvantaged by students who were already low-performers when they started the school year.

Still, there has been much national debate over how best to measure teacher success. Public interest is high, and efforts to balance it with teachers’ privacy have resulted in several different interpretations across the country.

In many states, existing public record laws do not address the topic of teacher evaluations directly, which leaves room for interpreting the extent the public has access to evaluations.

Some states, like Colorado, New York, North Dakota and Ohio, have open record laws that allow for the public inspection of teacher evaluation records. Other states, like Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Missouri, exempt teacher evaluations as public records.

For still other states, public interest must outweigh privacy concerns in order for teacher evaluations records to be publicly released.

“Part of it is just a philosophical decision on the part of states — some court decisions lean towards transparency and others default towards privacy,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“A lot has to do with the specific word choice in the state statute, sometimes you have to show a compelling and overriding privacy interest and sometimes you don’t.”

The fear of ‘mass hysteria’

The controversy over releasing teacher evaluations to the public heated up in 2010, when the Los Angeles Times compiled and released a database of thousands of third-through fifth-grade teachers’ names and their “value added” scores, from school years 2002-03 through 2008-09.

The decision to publish was denounced by the Los Angeles Unified School District and teachers’ unions. Some feared that parents would pull their children out of classes taught by teachers with lower scores.

“At the time, the school district and their attorneys argued that it would cause mass hysteria, a massive outcry by parents,” said Emily Richmond, public editor of the Education Writers Association. “That sentiment didn’t happen. The Los Angeles Times gave individual teachers the opportunity to challenge their ranking via email or on the website, and no one took them up on that.”

Many parents already had informal ways of spreading news about effective teachers among friends and local neighborhoods, minimizing reaction to the released ratings, Richmond said.

The Los Angeles Times wrote in a frequently asked questions section that they decided to publish the scores because research shows that teachers are “the single most important school-related factor in a child’s education. Until now, parents have had no objective information about the effectiveness of their child’s teacher.”

But the Los Angeles Times’ decision to publish those scores was a significant factor in prompting several states to pass laws that would block the release of teacher evaluations.

[Access to teacher evaluation records fuels privacy versus transparency debate]

In 2010, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, which exempted teacher and principal evaluations from Freedom of Information Act requests.

Section Z of Rhode Island’s Open Records Law was amended in 2013 to say that “any individually identifiable evaluations of public school teachers made pursuant to state or federal law or regulation” are not deemed public.

This year, a bill passed in the state Senate that would expand section Z to include all public school employees. The bill has not made progress in the state House.

“The ACLU opposed this bill just as we opposed the earlier legislation,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. “This went one step further and exempted employees in public schools.”

Brown said the ACLU opposed the changes to the state open records law because a balanced test of the right to privacy and the public’s right to know now leans too far towards exemption.

In 2014, Oklahoma’s legislature exempted individual public teacher evaluations from being requested through the state’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Evaluation System.

Since 1984, Connecticut teacher evaluations have not been classified as public records, but teachers can give permission to release their records to the public.

Legal challenges

In 2012, The Los Angeles Times sued the Los Angeles Unified School District over public access to teacher evaluations in order to see how students performed within individual classrooms.

After the publication of the original database, the district had refused to release the Academic Growth Over Time scores that had identifying information for individual teachers or a link to the schools where they taught.

The Los Angeles Times had argued that the information should be released due to public interest under the California Public Records Act, but lost the case.

In 2014, an appellate court ruled in favor of Los Angeles Unified School District by saying that it could redact teachers’ names upon the release of teachers’ performance ratings.

“We consider those to be personnel records and they are used for the purpose of having teachers improve in specific areas. We don’t see that much value in releasing evaluations to the public,” said Frank Wells, spokesman for the California Teacher Association. “One may not be a good representation of a teacher’s performance, so we think that they should be internal documents and not entirely released to the public.”

In Loudoun County, Virginia, a parent has been fighting through the courts to obtain teacher evaluation data. The parent, Brian Davison, seeks the data due to his belief that the public has a right to know how teachers are performing in classrooms.

“If you know that you have a teacher that’s not effective, is it fair to ask a parent to put their student in that teacher’s classroom?” he told the Washington Post in March.

In January, the Virginia Department of Education was forced to release English and math improvement scores for students in Loudoun County, due to a FOIA request from Davison.

Davison has filed more than 60 FOIA requests to retrieve Student Growth Percentile Data. He filed a suit in April, claiming that the school district failed to fulfill his requests and deliberately withheld information from the public.

The Loudoun Circuit Court ruled that the county schools were not in violation of the state Freedom of Information Act because the schools don’t have the documents, and under state law, public bodies are not required to fulfill a public records request if the documentation does not exist.

According to the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Davison might appeal the ruling.

Meanwhile, Florida was forced to release value-added data for individual teachers after the Florida Times-Union sued for the data. Florida’s First District Court of Appeal ruled that the value added scores were public data in 2013.

The court wrote that the value-added scores were “only one part of a larger spectrum of criteria by which a public school teacher is evaluated; it is not, by itself, the ‘employee evaluation.’”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement after the state’s release of the data that the value-added scores are not “an accurate or reliable assessment tool” and Florida has done “a grave disservice to students, parents, the broader community and its educators by pretending it is an releasing the results publicly.”

“Florida wants to reduce students and teachers to data points,” she said.

[The forecast for public access to teacher performance data under Florida’s Sunshine Law: Mostly cloudy]

While much of the national debate over teacher evaluations is centered on the K-12 level, some university professors are also concerned about access to their own evaluations.

Darnell Rhea, a former adjunct mathematics professor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, filed a lawsuit saying that a student’s name on an evaluation cannot lawfully be withheld on the grounds of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In 2013, a Florida appeals court ruled against Rhea that a student’s name on an evaluation is protected from being revealed under FERPA. The case was dismissed with prejudice.

“We reject any suggestion advanced by Rhea that a record cannot relate directly both to a student and to a teacher,” Judge Victor L. Hulslander wrote in his opinion. “If a record contains information directly related to a student, then it is irrelevant under the plain language in FERPA that the record may also contain information directly related to a teacher or another person.”

In addition to university-sponsored evaluations, sites like RateMyProfessor have allowed students to post anonymous critiques of their professors’ performance in the classroom.

Critics have said that student evaluations often tend to be biased and an inaccurate representation of professors’ teaching abilities, with greater criticism levied at female professors or professors who assign a hefty workload.

‘No compelling privacy justification’

There is a disconnect between how individuals view educational policies and ratings across the country versus their own experience in their own school districts, Richmond said.

“One consistent thing when you poll parents about education is that at the national level they’ll say they’re unsatisfied, but at the local level, parents are satisfied with their local teachers,” she said.

While K-12 teachers have said they don’t want to be publicly identified as an ineffective teacher without the opportunity to respond to evaluations (and because some don’t see evaluations as a complete measure of teacher effectiveness), proponents of open records believe that public interest can outweigh privacy concerns.

“I think that unless it’s unmistakable that an evaluation will be traceable to a specific individual student, then there’s no compelling privacy justification for withholding it,” LoMonte said.

“It’s rare that a student will give away something individually identifying in an evaluation, and if they do, that portion can be withheld. The public interest is in if teachers and professors are doing their jobs properly, and that seems like that outweighs any speculative concern that privacy may get compromised.”

For students and parents at public schools in states that allow teacher evaluations to be open to the public, submitting a Freedom of Information Act letter may be the most effective way of obtaining records, LoMonte said.

[Access to faculty and other state employee evaluations]

But for private schools in those states, it may still be difficult to get access to teacher evaluations, he said. Administrators at private institutions can set policies that govern how individuals can access records.

Richmond emphasized that the debate about teacher evaluations must extend beyond public access — the effectiveness of the evaluation models and controlling for factors such as income and geography are important steps to take when looking at the data.