A Yelp for teachers

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
(Getty Images)

Let’s have a discussion this week about transparency and accountability. No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton and the server that lives in her attic. I’m talking instead about teachers’ unions and their fight to keep classroom evaluations secret.

In exurban Loudoun County, Va., about a half hour’s drive from Washington, a parent named Brian Davison is suing the state because it won’t release the ratings that public school teachers get based on the test scores of their students. The Washington Post reports that the Virginia suit is part of a growing national debate over new, data-based ratings in the classroom.

The question Davison and other parents are asking is why the schools won’t share these numerical evaluations with us. The question that occurs to me, though, is exactly the reverse. Isn’t it time that parents shared their own evaluations with everyone else?

Before I get to that, let’s first take a closer look at the arguments against releasing the data on individual teachers. They come down to two very important principles: fairness and privacy.

The unions don’t like the kind of test-based evaluations that the president’s Race to the Top reform agenda encourages, because it seems to them like a pretty subjective way to define a teacher’s effectiveness. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll recognize these “value-added” ratings as a distant relation of what the new statisticians call “wins above replacement value” for a player; they’re based on mathematical averages but are entirely theoretical.

Did Derek Jeter give up more runs, statistically speaking, than the average shortstop? Yes. Did you want Jeter as your shortstop anyway? Absolutely. A public school teacher who ignites the imagination (and most of us had someone like that) might just be worth more than the one whose students have demonstrated mastery of the Pythagorean theorem.

And as the Post story points out, even some reformers who advocate using these new statistical measurements are hesitant to see them released, because it smacks of public shaming. Think about it: Would you want your boss to publish your less-than-flattering workplace evaluations?

These strike me as reasonable arguments, if not entirely persuasive. Yes, these ratings may be incomplete or flawed, but on that point, the unions are simply on the wrong side of a massive cultural shift that is reaching into every corner of the society. The data revolution of the past decade or so means that everyone is evaluated all the time.

The New York Times reported just last week on the push among Silicon Valley firms to pioneer new methods of “people science” — in other words, ways to integrate data-based evaluations into the workday, sort of like a Fitbit for individual productivity. We can all agree that we entrust our kids to teachers who are often nothing short of heroic, and we ought not to treat them like programmers. But it’s not just programmers whose value is now being measured by increasingly sophisticated metrics; it’s pretty much everyone with a job.

And the problem with the privacy argument is that teachers are public employees, and so, technically speaking, they work for us. That doesn’t mean we as parents can just burst into a classroom and start rifling through a teacher’s drawers. But it probably does mean we have a right to know if students are learning the relevant material or not.

Plenty of colleges make their faculty evaluations public in some way, and you don’t see a lot of adjunct professors being paraded through the streets with scarlet F’s stapled to their foreheads. Of course, you may point out that those evaluations are done by the students who actually sit in the classroom, as opposed to some algorithm that plots test scores on a graph. Which leads me back to the question I started with.

How is it that the business of teaching has somehow eluded the most ubiquitous and influential form of evaluation in modern America? I’m talking about consumer feedback.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the only way to know whether most people liked the products they paid for was to consult the relevant issues of Consumer Reports. (I still have a subscription.) But if you’re under, say, 50, and use a computer or a smartphone (which most people at all income levels do), chances are you don’t spend money on much of anything without consulting the wisdom of user reviews.

We review books and cribs on Amazon.com, movies and apps on iTunes. You can rate the Uber driver who just took you home from a bar. You can judge the reliability of a seller on eBay, or the table service of a neighborhood restaurant on Yelp, or the integrity of an appliance repairman on Angie’s List — before he walks into your home.

About the only thing you can’t easily find out online, in fact, is which seventh-grade math teacher is best for your kid. Ask the parents at any bus stop which teachers have lost their energy for the job or can’t control their tempers, and you’ll find out pretty quickly that they know better than anyone else. But there’s no mechanism for parents to pool that knowledge or to make the school system respond to it.

Maybe what we need, and what teachers should welcome, isn’t the data on the test scores and “value-added” rankings that some parents are demanding — or, at least, not that alone. What we need is for some tech entrepreneur to come up with a Yelp or an Angie’s List for public schools, because the amalgamated voice of the consumer is the most powerful kind of accountability in American life.

Skeptics will point out, I’m sure, that such a system doesn’t exist because the intelligence you’d gain isn’t actionable. That is, if the refrigerator you wanted to buy gets three stars out of five, you just buy another one. If the teacher your kid is likely to get has consistently low ratings, there’s nothing you can really do about it anyway except suffer through the school year. So why bother keeping track?

But the same can be said of these metrics that the unions and their political allies are fighting so hard to conceal. The point of empowering parents isn’t to enable them to game the system. The point is to give the small minority of teachers who fall behind some useful feedback on what’s not working and some genuine incentive to fix it.

I suspect the unions won’t like this suggestion any more than they like value-added data or the idea of making it public. I suspect there are reflexive defenders of the status quo who will read this and brand it as just another form of teacher bashing, which is how they dismiss all talk of modernization.

They shouldn’t, though. Because the bottom line is that accountability and metrics are infiltrating public education whether you like it or not, and the best thing for teachers is to encourage more ways of evaluating their performances, not fewer. Letting consumers have their say, combined with whatever other useful metrics we can come up with, would be a whole lot more enlightening than just plugging in a bunch of scores without any context.

Shouldn’t we teach to the parents at least as much as we teach to the test?