Over the objections of teacher unions, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled Wednesday that there’s no reason to keep secret the fact that New Milford school officials think about three-quarters of their teachers are accomplished and one quarter are exemplary.
If that doesn’t sound like the sort of information that calls for breaking out the lawyers to keep under wraps, welcome to the strange world of teacher evaluations – the only public-employee evaluations in Connecticut that are kept confidential by law.
Thirty years ago, the legislature cut off public access to “records of teacher performance and evaluation,” swallowing the argument that without secrecy, parents would engage in “teacher shopping” by poring over personnel files and then harassing principals to pair their kids with the “good teachers.” I don’t know how silly that argument sounded three decades ago, but every time I mention it in casual conversation these days, the universal response is, “But everyone already knows who the good teachers are.”
Nevertheless, it’s been the law since 1984 that the public shalt not see a teacher’s performance review (and by “teacher,” the legislature decided that term should apply to librarians and reading specialists and assistant principals and every other certified school professional except the superintendent.)
But the Commission Wednesday permitted a tiny peek under the tent, ruling unanimously that the law protecting records of teacher performance was intended to apply to an individual, identifiable teacher’s evaluation, and not to anonymous, aggregated data for an entire district.
That is a victory for John Spatola, who was turned down when he asked the New Milford school system to release data related to the state’s far-from-perfect effort to uniformly assess the competency of the state’s teaching force. The state plan established a variety of criteria that placed teachers into one of four categories; exemplary, proficient, developing and below standard. (New Milford substituted the term “accomplished” for “proficient.)
So Spatola, a former member of the New Milford Board of Education, asked for data showing the number of local teachers who were placed in each of the four categories. New Milford officials were reluctant to release the data without some assurance that they could do so without breaking the law. The local and state teachers’ unions, meanwhile, intervened and urged the FOI Commission to keep a cloak on the numbers, saying their release would be illegal and would harm teachers.
The legal argument is built on the broad language of the statute, which cuts off public access to “any” record of teacher performance and evaluation. The unions argued that that language covered the aggregated data Spatola was seeking. The Commission disagreed, adopting a hearing officer’s finding that the law was meant to shield records related to individual teachers. “The requested records, which do not identify individual teachers or individual schools,” the hearing officer wrote, “cannot be used for ‘teacher shopping.’ ”
While Spatola hails the ruling as a triumph for transparency, it was somewhat academic; New Milford’s numbers, and those of many other school districts, had already come to light when they were entered as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit against the state Department of Education. But the data that came out of that case was heavily redacted, with some information missing for two-thirds of the state’s districts, and all information missing for nearly half.
Given the FOI Commission’s ruling, I’ve sent a request to the State Department of Ed for an unredacted copy of the data. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, isn’t it time for the legislature to remember that it’s the public who ultimately employs the state’s public-school teachers? And to rethink a law that prevents the public from seeing performance evaluations for some of its most important employees?