Numbers that are measures of my life. These represent years of marriage, recent professional evaluation, number of kids, body mass index and age (though not in that order; you can puzzle it out if you wish).
I wouldn’t want to be known by any one of them. Indeed, while some of them are relevant, in some settings, to an understanding of who I am, none of them communicates very much by itself.
And each communicates even less if one does not know (or comprehend) how it is determined.
Take body mass index (BMI). For the number to be informative, one needs to understand the underlying concept it is supposed to measure, the scale of the index, and what the different ranges on the index mean. For real appreciation of its significance, a thorough understanding of its origin in research and how it actually is measured is required . . . that, or a consult with a medical professional.
Even if one has all of this, I still wouldn’t want to be known by this one measure . . . nor, indeed, by any number.
Last week, unfortunately, nearly all of Florida’s tens of thousands of public school teachers became known by a single number: the Value-Added Model for Measuring Student Learning Gains (what is being called the VAM scores). Thanks to a public records lawsuit by the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, it is possible for us to meet and evaluate, by name, every one of these teachers by a single numerical criterion.
I understand the inspiration of the lawsuit. These scores play a critical role in teachers’ annual evaluations. The public has a right to know how this system is working.
I also understand the court’s decision. Public records laws in Florida are extraordinarily sweeping in scope; apparently, these scores are just one more piece of public information.
But as I stress when doing ethics training programs (and when I teach ethics to my students), the law is not, in and of itself, a good indicator of what constitutes ethical behavior. Legal behavior, sure. But questions of ethics go well beyond the narrow definition of “lawful” and may lead us to hold ourselves obligated to act in ways the law does not. We may conclude that we are ethically bound to refrain from doing something lawful, or even, potentially, to act in violation of the law in order to do what is ethically required.
It seems to me that the public release of individually identifiable personnel evaluation scores, most especially a single numerical measure that is both obscure in its calculation and peculiar in its implications (how is it that some of the best teachers in the state have VAM scores indicating that they are poorer teachers than most?) is quite simply unethical.
One reason among many for my conclusion has to do with informed consent. Teachers, when they accepted their contracts, did not know that their VAM scores would be made public. Some, had they known this, might have chosen employment elsewhere. But now that the information is out there, a part of the permanent body of information about each of these teachers, accessible to any determined to find it. Valid or invalid, the number, and its alleged meaning, is out there . . . and will always be out there.
These teachers didn’t do anything wrong . . . not even those with low scores can be said to have done something wrong. So this is not an “arrest photo” scenario, where we might want to argue that “bad actors” deserve public shaming (indeed, a major ethical and legal battle is being waged about websites that publish arrest photos without any regard for whether an individual is ever found guilty of a crime). The VAM score is only part of the evaluative process . . . but it’s now the part everyone sees.
And to have a low VAM score is, without doubt, to experience public embarrassment.
Candidates for public office choose to put themselves in such a spotlight, accepting the risks for the rewards. Even here, candidates (and elected officials) often struggle to preserve some degree of privacy around aspects of their private lives. But they knew (or should have known) when they threw their hat in the ring that this was going to be an issue.
Teachers, when they signed their contracts, did not know the risks. Nor should they have to run them.
There’s a huge difference between what we are legally permitted to do and what it is ethical for us to do. The Florida Times-Union may have done us a service by compelling the state to release information about how teachers are being evaluated, but it has done our teachers (and the general public) a disservice by inviting the public to define the value of individual teachers by a single and highly contested number.
So I have one more number, this for the Florida Times-Union, to assess its conduct with regard to the rights of Florida’s teachers: