The New York City school system can publicly release performance ratings for more than 12,000 teachers based on their students' test scores, in what would be the largest such disclosure in the country, a Manhattan judge ruled Monday.
The interests of parents and taxpayers outweigh the privacy rights of public employees, said Manhattan Judge Cynthia S. Kern.
"The public has an interest in the job performance of public employees, particularly in the field of education," Kern wrote. "Courts have repeatedly held that release of job-performance related information, even negative information such as that involving misconduct, does not constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy."
The ratings are based on teachers' value-added scores, statistical measures of how each of their students improved on standardized test scores compared to previous years. The individual ratings were requested under New York state's public records law by media organizations beginning a day after the Los Angeles Times published a database of Los Angeles teacher rankings calculated by the newspaper in August.
The ruling applies to the nation's largest school district, but it could lend support to similar requests in other states, experts said. It comes amid a national debate over how best to measure the effectiveness of teachers — and whether to make that information public.
Urged by the Obama administration, states across the country have begun to incorporate "value-added" into teacher evaluations, which have traditionally relied exclusively on the subjective views of administrators. The push has met with fierce opposition from teachers unions and some experts and policymakers, who say the ratings are flawed.
Currently, New York City schools do not consider the rankings in formal teacher evaluations. But that will change by 2013 when New York state requires value-added to count for 25% of a teacher's performance review when the data are available. Under Monday's ruling, all teachers in New York state may also face the prospect of having their value-added scores made public.
Kern did not rule on the validity of the statistical approach, finding that the reports "may be released regardless of whether and to what extent they may be unreliable or otherwise flawed."
Lawyers representing the media in the case hailed the decision as a victory for the public, establishing the public's right to objective performance measures of government employees.
"This ruling does not mean you can go through their personnel folders," said attorney David Schulz, who represented the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and three other news organizations that requested the data. "But if there was objective data out there about how many streets a sanitation worker could plow in five hours, I think that is available and would be analogous."
The city's teachers union said it would appeal the decision, and a final ruling could be weeks or months away.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said he was disappointed. Union lawyers had argued in court that the release would violate the district's earlier assurances that it would attempt to keep the rankings confidential.
The reports "have huge margins of error and are filled with inaccuracies [and] will only serve to mislead parents looking for real information," Mulgrew said in a statement.
Some experts said that rather than releasing value-added results alone, they would favor issuing a more comprehensive assessment that included ratings by principals, students and parents. In most states, administrators' performance evaluations have not been released to the media.
"These are valuable statistics, but imperfect in many ways," said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University and advisor to New York state's task force on teacher evaluations, in reference to value-added. "We're only going to release a part of the puzzle…. The danger is that it could supplant other pieces of information, rather than complement it."
Since the Los Angeles Times first released performance data for about 6,000 elementary teachers in August, newspapers across the country have begun to seek similar information from their local districts with mixed success. In the case of several Texas newspapers, the state's attorney general blocked the release of teacher rankings. In South Carolina, the Charleston Post and Courier obtained the rankings of 300 elementary and middle school teachers from the local school district and published them in an online database.
The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other New York media outlets that requested the New York City data would not comment Monday on what they would do with it, if and when it is released.
Following the data release in Los Angeles, the teachers union organized a boycott, marched on the newspaper and vowed to oppose efforts by the school district to incorporate the scores into teacher evaluations, which are governed by the teachers' employment contract.
As contract negotiations continue, the Los Angeles Unified School District has hired the same consultant New York City uses to conduct a value-added analysis of teacher performance. The scores are expected to be released privately to teachers and principals later this year.
John Deasy, the district's deputy superintendent who is expected to be named to the top job Tuesday, said that he favors using value-added as one of many measures of teacher performance but that the final evaluation should be between "employer and employee" and not released to the public.