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City denies request for teacher ratings

The Boston School Department has refused to release overall ratings of teacher performance at individual schools, denying families access to potentially powerful information that could shed new light on the quality of instruction.

The Globe had requested a breakdown of the teacher ratings for each school under a new job evaluation system that deems whether a teacher’s performance is exemplary, proficient, in need of improvement, or unsatisfactory.

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The Globe requested only an aggregate of the teacher ratings at each school and not for individual teachers so that no one would be personally identified. Similarly, the Globe sought a breakdown of the ratings of more than 130 principals and headmasters as well as other administrators on a district-wide basis so no one’s identity would be revealed.

But on Thursday, school officials rejected the Globe’s public records requests, saying that the ratings information is part of an employee’s personnel file and therefore is not subject to public disclosure.

They further argued that even the release of school-by-school teacher ratings and district-wide administrator ratings would run the risk of revealing the performance of a specific employee.

“Exempting such information from disclosure serves to protect the Boston Public Schools’ ability to function effectively as an employer,” Lee McGuire, a School Department spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

The Globe will appeal the decision to the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees enforcement of the state’s public records law.

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The decision to keep the evaluation ratings secret comes at a time of growing debate over the quality of the city’s schools. In March, the School Committee approved a new school-assignment system that will let more students attend schools closer to their homes — a move that has many education advocates and parents in poor neighborhoods worried that children there could end up trapped in underperforming schools with lackluster teachers.

As of now, most statistical data about school performance focuses on the performance of students on state standardized test scores or other barometers such as attendance rates or graduation rates. The results have often sparked heated conversations about whether students do well or poorly because of their own limitations or that of their teachers.

The evaluation data could shed new insight, putting a spotlight on the performance of educators.

“Students and parents are very interested in knowing how teachers and principals are performing,” said Kim Janey, senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston nonprofit that has closely monitored Boston’s change in student assignment. “If teachers are performing well, isn’t this something we would want to share?”

Janey said she supports releasing evaluation data only for overall performance of teachers at a school or administrators across the district, and keeping ratings for individuals private.

Across the nation, the most contentious debates over releasing evaluation data have centered on requests for data on individual teachers, such as in New York City, where media outlets successfully sued for public disclosure only to have state lawmakers later vote to limit public access.

The Obama administration, seeking greater accountability of teachers and administrators, has asked states in exchange for federal grant money to make aggregate teacher ratings available for each school and administrator ratings available on a district-wide basis.

Boston created its evaluation system under a 2-year-old revision of state regulations that call for more intensive review of teachers and administrators as well as a common rating scale to be used by districts statewide.

The state Legislature upped the ante of the new evaluation system last year, requiring the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to publicly report the aggregate ratings of teachers for each school in the state and the ratings of administrators on a district-wide basis.

The education department is in the process of creating a system to collect the data from districts and is planning to publicly report results for the first time later this fall.

Boston school officials — even as they argue the evaluation data is private — said they will work with the state so they can release ratings for Boston teachers and administrators.

“New Massachusetts guidelines clearly direct the state, and not individual districts, to publish school-level educator evaluation data as well as aggregate administrative evaluation summaries,” said John McDonough, Boston’s interim superintendent, in a statement. “This is the process that has been established by the state and, working closely with DESE, we are following it carefully.”

But Boston school officials did jump ahead of state officials in reporting evaluation results in May, releasing district-wide ratings of more than 3,700 teachers.

That data have stirred tremendous public debate. Meg Campbell, a School Committee member, questioned whether the School Department was suffering from grade inflation, given that 92 percent of teachers received a rating of proficient or advanced, even though dozens of city schools have among the lowest MCAS scores in the state.

The Boston Teachers Union took Campbell to task for her comments, but also has raised its own concerns about potential bias creeping into the evaluation system.

The ratings, for instance, have revealed that black and Latino teachers are more likely than white teachers to be placed on improvement plans — a finding that has prompted top school district leaders to delve deeper into the data for possible explanations.

Richard Stutman, the union’s president, said he opposes making school-level teacher evaluation data public because he believes the current evaluation system is subjective and unfair, and could cause parents to draw wrong conclusions as they choose schools.

“I think parents might be motivated to make a decision based on what we view as faulty data,” Stutman said. “Given the bias, it’s not scientific enough to make a decision on where to send your child or not.”

But he said he is puzzled by the School Department’s refusal to release district-wide ratings of administrators, given that the department already has released district-wide data for teachers.

Dan Chu, who graduated from Boston Latin Academy last month and is heading to University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he does not see the harm in releasing the ratings in aggregate.

“I think a good indicator of a school’s health and success is if a majority of teachers have been rated proficient or above,” said Chu, who was the student representative on the School Committee last school year. “That is something to be proud of and a good indicator of whether students would want to attend.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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