NYT Sues for Right to Publish Bad Teacher Data

The New York Times, along with a few other media outlets, went to court to win the right to publish Teacher Data Reports–the “value-added” ratings for some 18,000 New York City public schoolteachers. The Times explains today–accurately–that the numbers are seriously flawed:

Even before their release, the ratings have been assailed by independent experts, school administrators and teachers who say there are large margins of error–because they are based on small amounts of data, the test scores themselves were determined by the state to have been inflated, and there were factual errors or omissions, among other problems.

So why publish them? The Times hasn’t adequately answered that question. On their SchoolBook blog, they offer a canned response: “With SchoolBook‘s partners at WNYC, the Times has developed a sophisticated tool to display the ratings in their proper context, a hallmark of our journalism.” And the Times points out that individual teachers will be able to post a response to their scores. I suppose that’s to be seen as magnanimous–some supposedly objective measure of your job performance is now public, but you can write a rebuttal.

The Los Angeles Times did something similar with teachers in that city. As Daniel Denvir pointed out in Extra! (4/11), that reporting was, like the testing data, seriously flawed–and it seemed to have been a factor in one teacher’s suicide. A New York Times spokesperson told Denvir, “Obtaining this data advances our ability to inform readers about the quality of teaching and the way schools measure quality.”

That’s confusing. If the test scores are unreliable, they tell you nothing about the “quality of teaching.” If the point is to demonstrate that these scores are highly flawed, and shouldn’t be used by the city to determine anything at all, then exposing those flaws is a worthy journalistic pursuit. And as Denvir points out in the Extra! piece, the Times‘ journalism on the problems of value-added testing has been pretty good overall.

But it’s still hard to understand why an outlet would make these scores public if it believes they are seriously flawed. The Times even published an op-ed by Bill Gates (2/23/12) arguing against publishing the information. The argument for publishing bad data–which will single out individuals by name, and falsely damage reputations–is still hard to figure out.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.