Knowing is Half the Battle. But It's the Easy Half.

Liberating teacher performance data is a great way to start out the school year. But it's not enough.


They say that knowing is half the battle. But it's the easy half.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times caused quite a stir by releasing individual performance data about 6,000 of the system's primary teachers after weeks of hyping the story. The paper took the simple but ingenious step of filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the district's raw math and reading standardized test scores over several years. For each teacher, the paper calculated a score based on the gains shown by his or her individual students from the time they arrived in the classroom in the fall to the time they left—a value-added score—and then rated the teachers' effectiveness.

Information is power, and the school system and teachers union had access to this data long before the Times. But instead of releasing scores—and thus seizing the opportunity to frame the information and the debate—they sat on the data for years, stalling, hoping no one would notice that it existed at all. Their mindset dates from a time when processing a large amount of data and offering a granular analysis was a difficult and expensive business. But number crunching on this scale is no longer the province of big bureaucracies with major computing power. Anyone can do it, and it was only a matter of time before someone did.

Naturally, the teachers union flipped out. In addition to announcing a boycott of the paper, union reps have condemned the release of the scores to parents as "dangerous." (To his credit, Obama education chief Arne Duncan backed the release of the scores, saying "What's there to hide?")

But all the data in the world won't do kids or their parents any good if they can't make choices informed by that data.

In a world where we can get rankings and information about every book, every household appliance, every restaurant, and every manicurist, we are in the habit of casually seeking information and making well-informed choices about the things we buy and the people we contract with for services. But in education (and, for that matter, in medicine) users are mostly working in an information vacuum. One reason doctors and hospitals are frightened of the popularization of information about patient satisfaction and pricing is that people can, with some constraints, take their broken legs, strep throats, or brain tumors elsewhere. But parents don't have that luxury when it comes to public schooling.

Even if parents know who the good teachers are—and they often do already—it often doesn't matter, since kids are randomly assigned. They're allocated to a district, a school, a schedule, and a classroom, all without any input from students or parents. The biggest decision public school parents get to make about their child's primary education is where they choose to live. Short of staging a mini-sit in at the guidance counselor's office (something my parents were known to do from time to time) there's not much you can do once the die has been cast. And if you're a parent who doesn't have the luxury of taking a day off from work to spend fighting the school bureaucracy, your kid is stuck wherever he was randomly assigned, no matter what. Teacher data doesn't do a lick of good if you don't have input about which teacher you wind up with.

Instituting a small degree of teacher choice wouldn't be overwhelmingly difficult. Schools at all levels could opt for the kind of first-come, first-served lottery that large colleges use. It's not an ideal system, but it's an improvement. Again, computers these days, they can do amazing stuff. Once a system is in place, this kind of limited choice would be neither time consuming nor expensive. But it would create one outcome that teachers unions will do almost anything to stop: It would quickly become obvious which teachers aren't desirable. The teachers with the half-empty classrooms would be ripe for firing. And that's the scenario that makes teachers unions (and to a lesser degree school boards and other education bureaucracies) fear a flood of data, especially if it's accompanied by even a little choice.

In today's Los Angeles Times, this troublingly common sentiment showed up: "As a parent, I think I have a right to know," said [school] board member Nury Martinez, who added that she did not believe that the general public should be able to see a teacher's entire review." Giving parents all the information that's available is a bad idea, the argument goes, in part because they might start trying to make the kind of choices for their kids that they make every day about their lunches, their jobs, or their dry cleaners.  

Asked about the release of the Los Angeles teacher data at a recent community meeting, reformist D.C. school Chancellor Michelle Rhee replied with a personal story and a similar gut reaction: "I was looking at the data in my own children's school," she says. "I could see the teacher data. One good, one not so much. I pride myself on not giving my kids preferences. But as a mother i was like whoa! From an administrative point of view, it's pretty terrifying."

There were a lot of mothers in Los Angeles on Sunday who were like whoa. But none of those whoa moments will amount to much in a system starved of choice.

"I'm kind of waiting for the FOIA request in my mailbox," says Rhee. It's coming, alright. But it won't be enough.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.