What Happens When Teachers Are Publicly Ranked?

Dr. Emery Petchauer warns that the ‘best and brightest’ young adults  recruited into teaching will want no part in a profession that is  humiliated by outsiders.

How the Untied States decides what a “good teacher” is and what we do with that information has gained national attention in the past two weeks. The controversy involves “value-added” measurements of teacher effectiveness, which evaluate teachers based upon their students’ one-time standardized test scores. In places such as New York City and Los Angeles, these scores have been used to publicly rank teachers in local newspapers. In the most recent and egregious case, public school teacher Pascale Mauclair from Queens was named the “city’s worst teacher” by the New York Post based upon these measurements.

A number of scholars and writers have set the proverbial record straight in the past week, including Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond and EdWize education wire.  These articles reiterate the shaky practice of value-added teacher evaluations; very appropriately scold the Post, Mayor Bloomberg, and the NYC Department of Education for such a practice; and offer a more accurate portrayal of Pascale Mauclair, who is a perfectly fine teacher by all reasonable standards.


What has not been addressed with this issue to sufficient depth is the following question: How do these types of attacks affect students who wish to become teachers? This is not a rhetorical question. I spend almost every day with these students educating them to be teachers, so I know the answer.

It makes them not want to become teachers anymore.

Is this a surprise? Who would want to enter a profession assailed to such a degree that one might be called out on the pages of a newspaper by way of a measurement that is unquestionably suspect. This is analogous to ranking doctors based upon how quickly their patients heal after visiting a doctor’s office. Certainly, a visit to the doctor’s office can be an important step in restoring health, but there are numerous other factors that impact health such to the degree that to ascribe the worth of a doctor wholly upon the health of the patient is clearly wrong.

If this is the logic of professional assessment for the era, then let us apply it to all professions. Let’s rank doctors based upon how quickly their patients heal. Let’s rank defense lawyers solely upon how many cases they win. Let’s rank congressmen and congresswomen upon their abilities to achieve bipartisan consensus about the economic woes that affect our daily lives. And let’s stay true to this form of evaluation by publishing the pictures and names of the lowest ranking professional in newspapers, just like the New York Post did. Let’s apply this flawed logic of evaluation not just to education but to other professions and see what happens.

We should be clear to understand, too, that these attacks on teachers are racialized. School reform and “failure” is constructed in the news as a decidedly urban issue. And “urban” is most frequently a pseudonym for Black, Brown and other.

But we won’t do this. We won’t because we understand that a patient’s genetic disposition, chosen diet, and more affect their health, too. We know that often times defense lawyers (perhaps appointed by the state) have to take clients who cases cannot win, but they deserve legal counsel anyway. We know that some elected officials would rather hold to rigid political ideologies than compromise for the good of common folks. We won’t apply this flawed system of evaluation to other professions because we know it is flawed. Yet more and more, teachers are subject to it.

We should be clear to understand, too, that these attacks on teachers are racialized. School reform and “failure” is constructed in the news as a decidedly urban issue. And “urban” is most frequently a pseudonym for Black, Brown and other. This overlooks the fact that, by way of these flawed measurements, teachers in many types of schools—urban, suburban, rural and others that do not fit into these limited categories—will be ranked as unsatisfactory and at the bottom, too. Yet, these types of explicit and public attacks happen less often, if ever, in non-urban districts. In this way, these attacks contribute to the longstanding notion that Black and Brown teachers (and workers more broadly) should be controlled rather than control their own labor.

Overall, these attacks and the politicians and media channels that lead them will be part of the problem and not part of the solution. The “best and brightest” young adults who are recruited into teaching will be smart enough to want no part in a profession that is controlled and humiliated by outsiders.


Originally appeared at Diverse Blog, The Academy Speaks

Photo courtesy of -Marlith-

About Emery Petchauer

Dr. Emery Petchauer is assistant professor of teacher development and educational studies at Oakland University. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives: Elements, Embodiment and Higher Edutainment”. (Routledge)


  1. Peter, I think that was sort of a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, not a realistic one. I read it as a pointed argument that teachers are only a piece of a large and complex puzzle. A student’s own motivation and the involvement of their parent(s)/guardian(s), do play a role in each individual student’s success or failure. Teachers can (and do) try innovative strategies and work long beyond their contracted hours to try to reach the students, but unfortunately their influence, no matter how talented and dedicated they might be, is not the only thing that plays into a student’s learning and development.
    This article sums it up better than I am able to in limited space:


  2. wellokaythen says:

    If ranking is a valid way to keep track of quality and is such a great motivator, then we should do it for every aspect of the education system. For example, teachers should be able to rank students and publish the list in the local newspaper so the public can see who are the best and worst. The worst tend to consume a disproportionate amount of the public school teacher’s labor, so it would be appropriate for taxpayers to know who is squandering the most public education dollars.

    By the same token, and for the same reasons, schools ought to be able to list the best and worst parents in the local paper. I’m confident that school boards, in consultation with teacher organizations, could come up with a pretty sophisticated rubric to evaluate the quality of parent/guardian influence on a particular student. (After all, the student spends far more time with them than with any individual teacher.)

    All the same reasons that it could be a good idea to rank teachers (accountability, motivation, quality assurance, best value for the taxpayer) supports the idea of ranking everyone else involved. Whatever problem someone might have with ranking kids and parents (e.g., “How dare you judge me! You don’t know what I go through every day!”) would equally apply to ranking teachers.

    Combine them all together and you would get a more accurate picture of the quality of the teacher. Cross-reference the student’s test scores with the student’s ranking and that of his/her parent(s), and you would get a more fair reflection of what that teacher had to work with. If the student and his/her parents started the school year at the bottom of the list, but the student scores in the middle of the pack, then that teacher must have done some good teaching.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      There’s a huge difference: Students and parents aren’t employees, they pay (or have money paid on their behalf) for the privilege of education.

  3. “However, I don’t think we should treat teaching like it’s manufacturing and we teachers are just turning out widgets.”

    If the teachers do not want to be treated like “widgets” then they need to dissolve their unions and accept pay-for-performance.

    As it stands, teachers’ unions use strike actions to extort tenure agreements and ensure that pay is based solely upon “time served” rather than teaching ability. This is actually worse than other fields, because when teachers strike it is not some corporate profiteer who is hurt, it is innocent children who deserve a quality education.

    If teachers were serious about their insistence that they are not interchangeable, they would have accepted a pay-for-performance compensation structure decades ago. Their refusal to accept this structure speaks volumes about how they really feel.

    • Mike, have you actually been inside a classroom recently? I wish I could take every person who says what you did and make them a teacher’s aide in some of the very special schools I’ve seen…lol Let’s see if you still think the unions are the problem after 6 weeks. 6 days would probably be enough…lol

      When you think about why teachers should have to insist that they are not interchangeable, you’ll begin to see why what you’ve written is so insulting.

    • wellokaythen says:


      I think I see your point here about teacher unions being a bad influence. One could actually put this argument to the test.

      There are some ways to test the effects of teachers’ unions on education quality. One would be to look at cases in which there is no union involved and compare those test scores to places that have unions. We could look at states where teachers’ unions are small, weak, or nonexistent, look at private schools that don’t allow teachers to form unions, and look at home-schooled students.

      Do the teachers who aren’t in unions perform better in terms of test scores? Some do, some don’t.

      The private schools that are better are not better because they don’t have unions (many of them have tenure anyway), but because they’re selective, the classes are small, and the parents tend to be highly involved. If home-schooled kids test better, it’s because of the individual attention and small class size, and it’s certainly not because home-school teachers are intensively supervised. Far from it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the states with weak teacher unions also tend to be states with relatively low test scores.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    P.S. Using an average or a list as a way to measure people is seriously flawed to begin with. Think about it. Almost half of teachers would be “below average,” because that’s how averages work! (Assuming there’s not much difference in the data between the average and the median.) List all the teachers in an area, and even if they are all stellar, there will always be someone at the bottom of the list. That’s how lists work!

  5. wellokaythen says:

    Some teachers are better than others. There ought to be ways to measure this and find ways to improve where necessary. That makes sense to me. That’s fair.

    However, I don’t think we should treat teaching like it’s manufacturing and we teachers are just turning out widgets. But, if we’re going to treat test scores as some kind of output tested for quality, then let’s be realistic about it. The quality of the output is dependent on the quality of the inputs. It’s sweet to think that teachers are the only factor in student success, but that is far from the truth. No one wants to think this about his/her special little snowflake, but not all inputs are the same. Some students learn better than others, and it is not always the teacher’s fault. Students come into your grade with a wide variety of aptitudes and attitudes. Some students will probably never score high no matter how gifted their teachers are. Sacrilege, I know, but it’s the truth. It’s rarely like the “Stand and Deliver” story, as inspirational as that is.

    If we wanted a more realistic measurement of teaching ability, we’d also have to consider what the students were like when they first started with that teacher, not just what they’re like at the end. It’s absurd to assume that all students are equally gifted, even though that’s the most socially acceptable viewpoint. Put smart students in a class, and the teacher’s test scores look a lot better….

    I don’t know how this rankign would be fair at all in the growing number of small towns that are actually *banning homework*.

    If we make test scores the main measurement, then you’ll see a lot of teachers and administrators corrupting the system like they are already doing. If my job depends on my students’ test scores, I’ll try to recruit the best students for my classes or I’ll find a way to teach the classes more likely to attract the higher performing students. The students who aren’t doing so well I’ll channel off into Special Ed programs, where their test scores aren’t counted the same. Or, students who seem to be overly distracted I’ll just have expelled to keep my average up. One student with a bad day or bad year could throw off my whole average, so better get rid of those troublemakers right away.

    As for not being able to recruit the best and brightest, I don’t think the standardized test system has much to do with it. It’s more about the low pay and aggravating workplace atmosphere, not to mention the lack of prestige or social status. Much of the population thinks of teaching as not much more than babysitting, and we don’t pay babysitters very much, so why teachers? Much of the population thinks that students don’t really learn all that much in a given week, so there’s no real problem if the kids miss too much school. If you’re pulling your child out of school for two weeks to go skiing, thinking that it’ll be easy for him to keep up, what message does that send about how important teachers really are? Finally, there’s the reality that teachers don’t actually “get summers off.” Many of them are essentially unemployed in the summer, but that’s not the same as getting the summer off.

    Besides, surely there must be a wide range of teaching ability in the homeschooling community and in the private schools who may not use the same standardized tests. How would one know if the worst teacher in the city was in fact a homeschooler, or a teacher at a private school?

  6. Anthony Zarat says:

    You have missed the most important point (along with almost everyone else):

    >>> You assume that it is desirable to have higher scores on standardized curriculum exams <<<

    I assert that this is completely and demonstrably false. The optimal score on a standardized curriculum exam is NOT 100%.

    Assume (for argument's sake) that a perfect standardized curriculum test can be devised, that does not accidentally penalize (discriminate) people who have the "wrong" culture/race/class/whatever. This "hypothetical perfect curriculum test" CANNOT test the ability of students to innovate. The beating heart of the American economy is, and always has been, innovation. You do no accomplish innovation by navigating between the signposts of what is currently known. You accomplish innovation by following your nose, your gut, your instincts, and finding an answer that is currently invisible to everyone else.

    Asian nations like China, Korea, and Japan have always had far better results on standardized curriculum tests than the United States. What have ANY of these nations ever invented? Discovered? Explained?

    Mighty Japan, with the world's second largest expenditure on Science and technology, has fewer Nobel prizes than Canada — and the same number as Austria (Austria's R&D budget is 6% of Japan's R&D budget).

    Technology obsessed China, already the world's largest economy (or second largest, depending on who you ask) has half as many Nobel laureates as Denmark. The economic output of China in one week is larger than tiny Denmark's efforts for a whole year — and yet the Lilliputian Danes easily out-run the Chinese in scientific productivity.

    The real question is, what kind of America do we see for the future? Do we want to make the cheapest and best cars? Or do we want to do what America has always done better than anyone else — make the FUTURE?

    If you want a rigid, unimaginative, robotic work force that follows instructions with rigorous discipline, by all means follow the Asian model and force children to study 12 hours a day, memorizing the accumulated knowledge of the human species.

    If you want a creative, agile, risk-taking work force that follows their nose and instincts, the best education system has to include discipline and freedom in equal measure. In the end, the mathematical and scientific tools needed to solve a NEW problem are much easier to learn than the flexibility needed to identify a new idea, the intuition needed to outline its implementation, and the courage needed to advocate until the idea becomes the "next big thing".

    The best possible grade on standardized curriculum tests is probably close to 75%:

    * Any lower means students lack critical skills needed to be successful.
    * Any higher means students are spending too much time learning what other people think, and not enough time learning to think for themselves.

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