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Boston told to release ratings of teachers

State supports Globe’s request; data could aid in picking schools

The secretary of state’s office has ruled that the Boston public schools wrongfully withheld overall ratings of teacher performance at individual schools this summer in violation of the state’s public records law and ordered officials to release the data.

The School Department said it would comply with Friday’s ruling. “In the days ahead we will make this information publicly available so we can be fully transparent,” said interim Superintendent John McDonough in a statement Sunday.

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The data are the first to be generated under a new job evaluation system that could offer families valuable information on the quality of instruction at each of the city’s schools. The system deems whether a teacher’s performance is exemplary, proficient, in need of improvement, or unsatisfactory.

The Globe originally sought the teacher ratings in June and also requested aggregate districtwide ratings of all principals and other administrators. The request did not seek any data on specifically named employees because of privacy concerns and sought only the number and percentage of teachers at each school who rank in each performance category.

But the School Department argued that such documents are exempt from the state’s public records law because their release would risk identifying individual teachers.

The secretary of state’s office disagreed. In ordering the release of the ratings, Shawn A. Williams, the state’s supervisor of records, noted that “the withheld records do not disclose the identity of any individual employees that would be protected” from disclosure under the state’s public records.

The ruling frustrated the Boston Teachers Union. Richard Stutman, the union’s president, said in a phone interview Sunday that he objects to releasing the data. He declined to say whether the union would seek to block disclosure.

“I think it is irresponsible of the Globe to publish this data,” Stutman said, enumerating several reasons. “One, there is a danger of the identification of individuals, certainly in a small school; two, I don’t believe the data is indicative of a school’s performance or a teacher’s performance and I’m afraid people might make hasty decisions on that data; and three, the system has been shown to be biased by age, race, and gender.”

The School Department created its evaluation system to comply with two-year-old revised state regulations that call for more intensive job reviews 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 and the ratings of administrators on a districtwide basis. The state is expected to release the first batch of ratings this fall.

Boston school officials, even as they argued that the evaluation data is private, said they would work with the state education department on the statewide release. In July, McDonough said the state, and not individual districts, could disclose the data.

On Sunday, McDonough appeared to back away somewhat from that stance.

“Our main concern when the Globe asked for these records over the summer was that there was little clarity within new state regulations regarding how and when these previously confidential records should be made public,” McDonough said. “We wanted to be sure our response was in line with state regulations and as such, we have been looking forward to receiving this guidance from the secretary of state.”

Teacher evaluations have been a sensitive issue in Boston. A report in 2010 by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only half of Boston’s approximately 5,000 teachers had been evaluated over a two-year period — a violation of state rules — and a quarter of schools did not complete any evaluations.

The last school year marked the first time all the city’s schools conducted evaluations under the new system.

On May 22, the School Department actually jumped ahead of the state’s anticipated public reporting of the evaluation data in the fall when it released some preliminary data: districtwide ratings for more than 3,700 teachers. The ratings, which did not include results for individual schools, found that 92 percent of teachers were rated proficient or exemplary, even though dozens of schools have among the lowest MCAS scores in the state.

The release set off a firestorm. One School Committee member, Meg Campbell, who also runs an independent charter school, questioned whether the School Department was suffering from grade inflation, drawing a harsh reaction from the teachers union.

The results also revealed some troubling potential trends: Teachers who were black, Latino, or older were more likely to receive a “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” rating. The finding raised questions about whether some principals and other administrators conducting the evaluations might be biased, and the School Department vowed to probe deeper.

Given the public debate, the Globe began to pursue more specific data in June.

At one point during the summer as the secretary of state investigated whether the School Department was justified in keeping the data secret, the office told a Globe attorney handling the complaint that the School Department said the data did not exist, according to a copy of a letter from the Globe attorney summarizing the conversation that appears in the state’s case file.

But the Globe subsequently verified the data’s existence, learning that McDonough sent a “confidential” update on July 26 to the School Committee that included similar data. The School Department submitted those documents to the secretary of state’s office in October for review.

Linda Noonan, executive director for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which has been pushing for more stringent educator evaluations, said “it’s good to get the information out there.”

“I think it is very helpful information,” Noonan said, “but what people need to understand is that it is a work in progress.”

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

Correction: Because of an editing error, a headline accompanying an earlier version of this story misidentified which entity was told to release the teacher ratings. The city was the entity ordered to release the teacher ratings.

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