Credit: TMS illustration by Donna Grethen

Rating teachers has been the hot topic lately at educational conferences, school board and administration meetings, and in teachers' lounges across the state.

Under the threat of losing funding, school districts are developing new performance review systems with their collective bargaining units that follow parameters set down by the state. Forty percent of a teacher's evaluation will come from student growth in test scores -- at least half of that from standardized state tests.

The remaining 60 percent will be based on classroom observations and other elements that Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers union, says can be considered the "art of teaching." Teachers' scores will earn them one of four ratings: highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective. Instructors rated ineffective will get a teacher improvement plan from the district. If the teacher is rated ineffective again the next year, he or she could be dismissed.

The new system has been presented as a means not only to evaluate teachers' performance but also to give them training where it's needed. But the recent release of 18,000 individual teachers' data reports in New York City has raised the likelihood that scores from the new system will be open for public viewing.

That's nothing more than public shaming, according to the many teachers I've spoken to. And it's bad news for anyone who's ever had a principal with a grudge.

I've heard some fans of the policy -- often people convinced that teachers are blessed with short hours, long vacations, large pensions and little oversight -- argue that it's about time teachers were held accountable. But the jury is still out on whether this will be good policy. And though it's too early to know if the new system will convey valuable, unbiased information, one thing is almost certain: Parents will make judgments based on it. That's understandable -- who wouldn't want their kid to have a "highly effective" teacher? -- but it's also a real shame.

While 60 percent of the ratings will be subjective, it's simply unclear whether there will be a meaningful way to take into account all of the many factors that make a great educator: teachers who come in early and stay late to help students with their homework; teachers who make a point of giving students the kind of individual attention that makes a huge difference in their intellectual and emotional development; teachers who adjust their approach to match a particular student's learning style and interests; teachers who go well beyond the curriculum and develop creative, interesting and, yes, even fun lessons that make stale subjects come to life and keep kids motivated.

Forty percent is simply too strong a focus on scores, fostering a "teach to the test" ethic that makes for neither great teachers nor truly educated students. Kids today are facing overwhelming pressure to perform well on these tests -- which makes for anxious students, not better educated ones.

What's more, the system is rife with inequities: It penalizes teachers in very low-performing and/or low-income districts, teachers with a transient student body or teachers with many non-English-speaking students. And how about teachers whose students have no support at home, are depressed or are suffering from other issues over which a teacher has no control?

The system hasn't gone into effect yet, and it's possible that there are elements that make sense. But until we have a better idea of its real value and accuracy, at the very least the ratings should be kept private. And most important, if they are intended to help teachers perform better, let's shift our focus toward giving them the tools and support they need to do so. Jenna Kern-Rugile lives in East Northport.