This is the questioned raised in a way by Virginia teacher and writer Chad Sansing in his response to yesterday’s Dropout Nation commentary on why teacher performance data culled from Value-Added analysis of student data should be released to the public as it is today by New York City’s education department. From where Sansing sits, “neither school choice nor teacher choice should be unduly influenced by scores” and other test-related data that he feels incompletely reflects his work in improving student achievement. As far as he is concerned, if the test data is to be published, go ahead and release his “evaluations, PD – everything” involving his work.

Sansing is one of the more-thoughtful polemicists in education right now, and probably one of the best teachers out there. But I’m not going to say that Sansing is correct in both his assertions. For one thing, Value-Added data has proven to be the most-accurate in objectively evaluating teacher success or failure in improving student achievement. Another thing:  I don’t think anyone’s entire personnel folder should ever be put into public view; after all, the information in those files often have little to do with the matters with which families and everyone else should be most-concerned: The ability of a teacher to improve student performance over time, and whether that instructor has the empathy and care for lives all every child in their classroom. As I discussed yesterday, the matters with which school operators and leaders must be concerned are going to be different from what concerns families, which means different levels of information should be released to the public while other data should not. Those parents who are leading a school overhaul as part of a Parent Trigger effort or launching schools of their own, will care about whether a particular teacher plays nice with others or even if the teacher has started a program addressing early childhood illiteracy (and they would learn that through their own human capital activities). Other parents won’t care a wit.

All that said, Sansing is right in saying that families should get all the data they need in choosing schools and teachers. He’s also hit upon one of the biggest problems in American public education: That school data remains a black box of sorts, unavailable and unusable for  parents, policymakers and even teachers and principals to make smart decisions. This is especially true when it comes to teacher quality. While a few states — notably Indiana — offer some basic data on a teacher’s credentials and time in the classroom, almost none of them provide data systems that help parents know how well an instructor does in improving student achievement; essentially you don’t actually see either Value-Added analysis of standardized tests or even results from formative assessments that can show how well a teacher has done in diagnosing and addressing particular learning needs of the students in their care.  Moves such as California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision last year to cancel development of the CALTIDES teacher database (which would have been linked up to the long-troubled CALPADS student data system to provide longitudinal information on teacher and student performance) hasn’t helped on this front.

Even worse, families (and even principals) don’t even have data on whether a teacher is highly-regarded by students (the best signal for levels of empathy), or the number (or socioeconomic background) of students directed by a teacher to principals and academic deans for suspension, expulsion, and other school discipline (which can also show whether a teacher is capable of teaching students of backgrounds other than her own). Given that just 33 percent of teachers working in our middle- and high schools are working in subjects for which there is test score data, the lack of information on teacher empathy means that neither families nor school leaders can get a handle on how well those instructors are serving children. Which means many kids aren’t getting the high-quality caring teachers they deserve.

There are certainly ways to gather information on the empathy of teachers through evaluations. As the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching initiative made plain in its latest report, student surveys such as the Tripod regime developed by Harvard professor Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education are far more accurate in measuring teacher performance than even the most-sophisticated classroom evaluations (and almost as accurate as Value-Added test data). Surveying students annually on teacher empathy can be done effectively and the results can disseminated. The problem is that the traditional evaluation systems still in place — and defended implicitly by National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates — all but eschew any form of strong, comprehensive evaluation, and champion so-called peer review programs that have proven decent at measuring observable aspects of teaching (and ineffective in removing low-quality teachers overall).

Requiring student surveys to account for at least a fifth of an overall evaluation (with Value-Added analysis of student test data and information from formative assessments given through an objective instrument making up the 60 percent of evaluations) makes sense and should be done; this information should then be provided as part of a database on individual teachers that families can use for their own decision-making and activism. Providing data on the number of students referred by teachers for discipline is also a good idea.

But it’s not just about the levels of teacher empathy that families will want to know. There is the matter of whether teachers interact well with parents themselves regardless of socioeconomic background. For poor and minority households, such information is incredibly important. As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of at the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.” But it isn’t just poor urban families who deal with disdain. University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in her sociological study, Blue-Chip Black, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs.

Such information is unlikely to be collected by districts and even individual schools in any meaningful way, largely because it also involves considerable costs that are difficult to bear (especially given that many use Excel spreadsheets and outdated FileMaker software to handle their database needs). The fact that such information is subjective and thus, easily skewed, also comes into play; so does the reality that families, like even the adults in schools, don’t really know what teachers are doing behind classroom doors. But this is a matter with which the private sector can help. There are already efforts by outfits such as to rate schools, and if high-quality data on teacher performance and empathy become more-widely available, a private-sector firm can easily combine such information with individual family feedback to create a comprehensive database that any parent can use. One can easily see special editions of Consumer Reports focused on the best teachers for your child, with sections on math, science, and even music instructors segmented by locale or region.

And thanks to the release of teacher performance data in New York City (along with the Los Angeles Times’ laudable and valuable effort from two years ago), such data systems can become the norm — and for the better.