Education Reform: Our Field, Our Voices Simply Do Not Matter

“I am an invisible man,” announces the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, adding:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, of figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me….That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact….you often doubt if you really exist….It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

After the reader follows the narrator along his journey from naivete and idealism to the battered realism of coming face-to-face with his invisibility, we discover that his invisibility leads to hibernation:

I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in….So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation.

Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core (CC), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists.

Education: The Invisible Profession

Two powerful and persistent responses from the new reform advocates when anyone (especially an educator) challenges their reform agendas include (a) teachers are against reform and want the status quo, and (b) while teachers are quick to criticize X reform policy, they never offer any solutions of their own.

These responses are not accurate (most educators are reformers at heart, and educators, thus, have many things to offer in terms of better reform agendas), but most of all they exist in a narrative that renders the entire field of education invisible.

Modern education as a field of study is over a century old. A great deal of consensus and enduring debates characterize teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and assessment—all rich and vibrant elements of the larger field of education, informed by decades of practitioners and educational researchers and well as theorists and philosophers.

My doctoral work included writing a biography of Lou LaBrant, who lived to be 102 and taught from 1906-1971. Recurring messages of LaBrant’s work as a teacher and scholar reveal an ignored fact of the teaching profession: Education in the U.S. has been primarily driven by political and bureaucratic mandates that have reduced teachers to implementing education policy, not creating it.

In LaBrant’s unpublished memoir (written during the Reagan administration), she also catalogued living and teaching through three back-to-basic movements, highlighting the bulk of a century of digging the same standards-based reform hole that has never once been shown to work.

The most recent thirty years have intensified that legacy that reaches back to at least the first decade of the twentieth century, but was identified by LaBrant (1947) directly: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

In effect, then, for a century, teachers have been invisible in their own field, except as both compliant workers implementing political and bureaucratic mandates and as often-silent scapegoats as that bureaucracy fails.

However, even that teachers have primarily been those who implement education policy instead of those creating it is more complicated than it seems.

For example, Regie Routman  and Stephen Krashen documented the typical dysfunction that characterizes education policy. By the 1990s, California’s state literacy curriculum was being labeled a failure by politicians, the media, and the public; the culprit was whole language.

Yet, Routman confronted the charges as misleading because of two factors: (1) Much of the measurable decline in California test scores was strongly correlated with decreased education funding and an influx of English language learners, and (2) while teachers received extensive in-service for implementing whole language, the vast majority of the teachers returned to their classes, shut their doors (hibernated), and taught as they had been taught, as they had always taught—thus, never implementing the whole language pedagogy and curriculum that constituted the official bureaucracy of the state.

Krashen presented a a detailed, evidence-based unmasking of the Plummet Legend:

The Great Plummet of 1987-1992 never happened. California’s reading scores were low well before the Language Arts Framework Committee met in 1987. There is compelling evidence that the low scores are related California’s impoverished print environment. There is also strong and consistent evidence that the availability of reading material is related to how much children read, and how much children read is related to how well they read. The skills and testing hysteria that has gripped California and other states was unnecessary.

Perpetuating a similar pattern to the whole language Plummet Legend, the current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles.

As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

Just as teenagers seek out self-defeating ways to appear adult (cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, sex) as expressions of their autonomy and agency, invisible workers of all kinds respond in dysfunctional ways when their autonomy is denied and their voices muted—just as Routman detailed about California during the rise and fall of whole language.

CC, charter schools, TFA, VAM, and merit pay plans are driven by advocates who refuse to see not only teachers but also the entire history and field of education, or as Arundhati Roy explains, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

If teacher quality is a genuine problem in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and compensation.

If curriculum and pedagogy are genuine problems in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for curriculum and pedagogy.

Let’s allow for the first time in history educators the recognition they deserve to examine, evaluate, and reform their own field. Current reform that is top-down and driven by the same historical and bureaucratic methods that have brought us to where we now stand is destined to repeat the same patterns we have already experienced for over 100 years.

But educators must step outside the social norm of apolitical, silent, hibernating teachers. Educators must confront our invisibility, but most of all, our culpability in our own de-professionalization, our hibernation, as Ellison’s narrator recognizes:

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

Educators as workers in a profession rendered invisible and “preferably unheard” are increasingly being demonized, marginalized, and challenged as defenders of the status quo and anti-reformers.

The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.

Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.

Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).

And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.

For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:

Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.

Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and evaluation/merit pay policies.Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few different paradigms:

• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]

• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.

• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students [1], regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.

• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.

Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.

The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:

Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.

Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.

[1] See Wright’s examination of access to equitable early childhood education

Reference

Krashen, S. (2002, June). Whole language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An urban legend from California. Phi Delta Kappan, 748-753.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

NFL again a Harbinger for Failed Education Reform?

During the impending NFL strike in 2011—the act of a union—I drew a comparison between how the public in the U.S. responds to unionization in different contexts:

“I am speaking about the possible NFL strike that hangs over this coming Super Bowl weekend: a struggle between billionaires and millionaires, which, indirectly, shines an important light on the rise of teacher and teacher union-bashing in the US. Adam Bessie, in Truthout, identifies how the myth of the bad teacher has evolved.”

Once again, the NFL is facing a situation that I believe and even hope is another harbinger of how education reform can be halted: A suit filed by the family of Junior Seau:

“The family said the league not only ‘propagated the false myth that collisions of all kinds, including brutal and ferocious collisions, many of which lead to short-term and long-term neurological damage to players, are an acceptable, desired and natural consequence of the game,’ but also that ‘the N.F.L. failed to disseminate to then-current and former N.F.L. players health information it possessed’ about the risks associated with brain trauma.”

This law suit has prompted a considerable amount of debate concerning whether or not the NFL as we currently know it could be dramatically reconfigured under the pressure of more law suits. In other words, the inherent but often ignored or concealed dangers of football are now being exposed by legal action, in much the same way as the tobacco industry was unmasked and thus the entire culture of smoking has radically changed in the last couple decades.

With the release of the Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA) Special Issue on “Value-Added Model (VAM) Research for Educational Policy,” a similar question should now be raised about the future of implementing high-stakes accountability policies that focus on teacher evaluation and retention through VAM-style metrics.

“High-Stakes Implementation of VAM,…Premature”

Two articles in the special issue from EPAA examines the validity and reliability of VAM-based teacher evaluation in high-stakes settings and then places these policies in the context of legal ramifications faced by districts and states for those policies.

“The Legal Consequences of Mandating High Stakes Decisions Based on Low Quality Information: Teacher Evaluation in the Race-to-the-Top Era” (Baker, Oluwole, & Green, 2013) identifies the current trend: “Spurred by the Race-to-the-Top program championed by the Obama administration and a changing political climate in favor of holding teachers accountable for the performance of their students, many states revamped their tenure laws and passed additional legislation designed to tie student performance to teacher evaluations” (p. 3). Because of the political and public momentum behind reforming teacher evaluation, Baker, Oluwole, and Green seek “to bring some urgency to the need to re-examine the current legislative models that put teachers at great risk of unfair evaluation, removal of tenure, and ultimately wrongful dismissal” (p. 5).

While Baker, Oluwole, and Green offer a detailed and evidence-based examination of the VAM-based and student growth model approaches to high-stakes teacher accountability, they ultimately place the weaknesses of reform policies in the context of potential challenges from teachers who believe they have been wrongfully evaluated or dismissed:

“In this section, we address the various legal challenges that might be brought by teachers dismissed under the rigid statutory structures outlined previously in this article. We also address how arguments on behalf of teachers might be framed differently in a context where value-added measures are used versus one where student growth percentiles are used. Where value-added measures are used, we suspect that teachers will have to show that while those measures were intended to attribute student achievement to their effectiveness, the measures failed to do so in a number of ways. That is, where value-added measures are used to assign effectiveness ratings, we suspect that the validity and reliability, as well as understandability of those measures would need to be deliberated at trial. However, where student growth percentiles are used, we would argue that the measures on their face are simply not designed for attributing responsibility to the teacher, and thus making such a leap would necessarily constitute a wrongful judgment. That is, one would not necessarily even have to vet the SGP measures for reliability or validity via any statistical analysis, because on their face they are invalid for this purpose.”

The analysis ultimately discredits both the use of narrow metrics to determine teacher quality and the high-stakes policies being implemented using those metrics, concluding with the ironic consequences of these policies: “Overly prescriptive, rigid teacher evaluation mandates, in our view, are likely to open the floodgates to new litigation over teacher due process rights. This is likely despite the fact that much of the policy impetus behind these new evaluation systems is the reduction of legal hassles involved in terminating ineffective teachers” (pp. 18-19).

In “Legal Issues in the Use of Student Test Scores and Value-added Models (VAM) to Determine Educational Quality” (Pullin, 2013), the rapid increase of VAM-based accountability is further examined in the context of “a wide array of potential legal issues [that] could arise from the implementation of these programs” (p. 2).

Pullin notes the motivation for reforming teacher evaluation:

“VAM initiatives are consistent with a highly publicized press from the business community and many politicians to make government services more like private business, data-driven to measure productivity and accountability (Kupermintz, 2003). VAM approaches are in part a response to concerns that the current system of selecting and compensating teachers based their education and credentials is insufficient for insuring teacher quality (Corcoran, 2011; Gordon, Kane & Staiger, 2006; Hanushek & Rivkin, 2012; Harris, 2011). There have been increasing expressions of concern that teacher evaluation practices are not robust and do not improve practice (Kennedy, 2010). In the contemporary public policy context, much of the support for the use of student test scores for educator evaluation comes from a concern that the current system for evaluation is ineffective and that the current legal protections for teachers are too cumbersome for schools seeking to terminate teachers (Harris, 2009, 2011).”

While a business model for addressing quality control of a work force may seem efficient, Pullin highlights that legal ramifications are likely with these new models.

Pullin’s analysis offers a detailed and useful examination of previous court cases involving the use of test scores to evaluate educators, including recent cases involving VAM, concluding that the picture is not clear on how the courts may rule in the future, but that a pattern exists of “heavy judicial deference to state and local education policymakers and the allure of using test scores to make decisions about education quality” (p. 5).

Further, Pullin notes “there are differences of perspective among social scientists about VAM and the defensibility of using it to make high-stakes decisions about educators,” further complicating the concerns of legal action (p. 9).

While raising many other complications, Pullin also notes that students and parents may enter legal battles using VAM metrics “to substantiate their own legal claims that schools are not meeting their obligations to provide education” (p. 14).

Pullin concludes with a sobering look at teacher quality reform built on VAM and implemented in high-stakes environments:

“In the broad contemporary public policy context for education reform, the desire for accountability and transparency in government, coupled with heavily financed criticisms of public school teachers and their unions, may mean that VAM initiatives will prevail. The concerns of education researchers about VAM, coupled with legal obligations for the validity and reliability of education and evaluation programs should require judges and education policymakers to take a closer look for future decision-making. At the same time, the social science research community should be generating substantial new and persuasive evidence about VAM and the validity and reliability of all of its potential uses. For public policymakers, there are strong reasons to suggest that high-stakes implementation of VAM is, at best, premature and, as a result, the potential for successful legal challenge to its use is high. The use of VAM as a policy tool for meaningful education improvement has considerable limitations, whether or not some judges might consider it legally defensible.” (p. 17)

Like the NFL, federal and state governments may soon be compelled to reform the reform movement under the threat of legal action from a variety of stakeholders since the science of teacher evaluation remains far behind the curve of implementation, particularly when teacher evaluation is high-stakes and based on VAM and other metrics linked to student test scores.

The special issue from EPAA is yet another call for political leadership to pause if not end wide-scale teacher evaluation and retention models that pose legal, statistical, and funding challenges that those leaders appear unwilling to acknowledge or address.

Review [UPDATED]: “How to Evaluate and Retain Effective Teachers” (League of Women Voters of SC)

The League of Women Voters of South Carolina has released a report entitled “How to Evaluate and Retain Effective Teachers” (2011-2013) with the identified purpose “to examine the growing movement toward ‘results based’ evaluation nationally and in South Carolina.”

Before examining the substance of the report, several problems with the larger context of teacher evaluation and retention as they intersect with important challenges facing SC need to be identified:

• The report fails to clarify and provide evidence that teacher quality and retention are primary problems facing SC. Without a clear and evidence-based problem, solutions are rendered less credible. However, SC, like most of the US, has a teacher assignment problem that has been clearly documented: students of color, students from poverty, English language learners (ELL), and special needs students are disproportionately assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers (Peskey & Haycock, 2006). As well, the implied problem of the report marginalizes the greatest obstacles facing SC schools, poverty and the concentration of poverty (notably the Corridor of Shame along I-95).

• The report compiles and bases claims on a selection of references that are not representative of the body of research on teacher quality and value-added methods (VAM) or performance-based systems of identifying teacher quality. As detailed below, the claims and research included in this report misrepresent the reports themselves as well as the current knowledge-base on teacher quality and retention.

In that context, the report fails the larger education reform needs facing SC as well as the stated purpose of the study.

Do Teachers Matter?

The opening claim of the report asserts “the most important school-based factor is an effective teacher,” and then cites Hanushek, among others. While the report is careful to note teacher quality is an important in-school factor, it repeatedly overstates teacher quality’s impact with terms such as “overwhelmingly” and fails to clarify that in-school factors are dwarfed by out-of-school factors. Matthew Di Carlo offers a balanced picture of the proportional impact of teacher quality, including an accurate interpretation of many of the same references (such as Hanushek):

“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004).” [1]

Along with misrepresenting the impact of teacher quality on measurable student outcomes, the report lends credibility to a misrepresented and flawed study by Chetty, Friendam and Rockoff  (2011):

“[T]hose using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings.” (Di Carlo)

“These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate  the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.)” (Baker)

The teacher quality impact is misrepresented in this report and perpetuates popular and agenda-driven research myths such as the need for consecutive years of high-quality teachers; the claim is inaccurate and should not drive policy:

“This is important, because the ‘X consecutive teachers’ argument only carries concrete policy implications if we can accurately identify the ‘top’ teachers. In reality, though, the ability to do so is still extremely limited [emphasis added].

“So, in the context of policy debates, the argument proves almost nothing. All it really does – in a rather overblown, misleading fashion – is illustrate that teacher quality is important and should be improved, not that policies like merit pay, higher salaries, or charter schools will improve it.

“This represents a fundamental problem that I have discussed before: The conflation of the important finding that teachers matter – that they vary in their effectiveness – with the assumption that teacher effects can be measured accurately at the level of the individual teacher (see here for a quick analogy explaining this dichotomy)….

“But the ‘X consecutive teachers’ argument doesn’t help us evaluate whether this or anything else is a good idea. Using it in this fashion is both misleading and counterproductive. It makes huge promises that cannot be fulfilled, while also serving as justification for policies that it cannot justify. Teacher quality is a target, not an arrow.” (Di Carlo)

Has Traditional Teacher Evaluation Failed?

One of the implied and cited reasons for addressing teacher quality and retention rests on wide-spread criticism of traditional teacher evaluation policies and practices. This report lends a great deal of credibility to those criticisms while relying on The Widget Effect from The New Teacher Project (TNTP). [2] However, a review of this report calls into question, again, the credibility of the study’s claims as well as using it as a basis for policy decisions:

“Overall, the report portrays current practices in teacher evaluation as a broken system perpetuated by a culture that refuses to recognize and deal with incompetence and that fails to reward excellence. However, omissions in the report’s description of its methodology (e.g., sampling strategy, survey response rates) and its sample lead to questions about the generalizability of the report’s findings.”

Di Carlo has also documented that TNTP continues to misrepresent and overstate the impact of teacher quality and the effectiveness of identifying high-quality teachers:

“I just want to make one quick (and, in many respects, semantic) point about the manner in which TNTP identifies high-performing teachers, as I think it illustrates larger issues. In my view, the term ‘irreplaceable’ doesn’t apply, and I think it would have been a better analysis without it….

“Based on single-year estimates in math and reading, a full 43 percent of the NYC teachers classified as ‘irreplaceable’ in 2009 were not classified as such in 2010. (In fairness, the year-to-year stability may be a bit higher using the other district-specific definitions.)

“Such instability and misclassification are inevitable no matter how the term is defined and how much data are available – it’s all a matter of degree – but, in general, one must be cautious when interpreting single-year estimates (see herehere and here for related analyses).

“Perhaps more importantly, if you look at how they actually sorted teachers into categories, the label irreplaceable,’ at least as I interpret it, seems inappropriate no matter how much data are available.”

Performance-Based Teacher Evaluations: Is VAM Credible?

A significant portion of the report makes claims about value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluations in the context of performance-based approaches to identifying teacher quality. Nationally, VAM and other performance-based policies are being implemented quickly, but with little regard to the current understanding of the effectiveness and limitations of those policies; this report fails to represent the current state of research on VAM accurately and depends on research and think tank advocacy (National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ]) that distorts the importance of teacher quality and the effectiveness of identifying teacher quality based on measurable student outcomes.

The report remains supportive of performance-based policy recommendations, but does identify cautions about test-based teacher evaluations while also encouraging teacher evaluations include multiple measures and include teachers in the creation of a new evaluation system.

Two failures, however, of this report’s endorsement of VAM and/or performance-based teacher evaluations systems include couching that endorsement in the distorted claims about teacher quality’s impact on measurable student outcomes and depending on reports and claims made by NCTQ and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. [3]

What, then, are the current patterns from the research on VAM and performance-based models and how should those patterns shape policy? [4]

• VAM and test-based evaluations for teachers remain both misleading about teacher quality and misrepresented by research, the media, and political leadership. Numerous researchers have detailed that teachers identified as high-quality or weak one year are identified differently in subsequent years: Numerous factors beyond the control of teachers remain reflected in test scores more powerfully than the individual impact of any specified teacher. The debate over teacher quality and measuring that quality, then, is highly distorted, as Di Carlo explains: “Whether or not we use these measures in teacher evaluations is an important decision, but the attention it gets seems way overblown.” This report makes that mistake.

• VAM and performance-based teacher evaluations in high-stakes settings distort teaching and learning by narrowing the focus of both teaching and learning to teaching to the test and test scores. VAM and test-based data  are likely valuable for big picture patterns and in-school or in-district decision making regarding teacher assignment, but VAM and performance-based evaluations of individual teachers remain inaccurate and inappropriate for evaluation, pay, or retention.

Particularly in a state such as SC where poverty and state budget concerns burden the state and the public school system, VAM and performance-based systems that rely on extensive retooling of standards, testing, and teacher evaluation systems are simply not cost effective (Bausell, 2013): “VAM is not reliable or valid, and VAM-based polices are not cost-effective for the purpose of raising student achievement and increasing earnings by terminating large numbers of low-performing teachers” (Yeh, 2014).

And further, rejecting VAM and using significant percentages of student test scores to evaluate and retain teachers is not rejecting teacher accountability, but confronting the misuse of data. Ewing (2011) clarifies that VAM is flawed math and thus invalid as a tool in teacher evaluation:

“Of course we should hold teachers accountable, but this does not mean we have to pretend that mathematical models can do something they cannot. Of course we should rid our schools of incompetent teachers, but value-added models are an exceedingly blunt tool for this purpose. In any case, we ought to expect more from our teachers than what value-added attempts to measure.”

If SC choses to reform teacher evaluation—which remains a project far less urgent than other problems being ignored—the state would be guided better by Gabriel and Allington (2012), who have analyzed and challenged the Gates Foundations MET Project, which has prompted misguided and hasty implementation of VAM-style teacher evaluation reform:

“Although we don’t question the utility of using evidence of student learning to inform teacher development, we suggest that a better question would not assume that value-added scores are the only existing knowledge about effectiveness in teaching. Rather, a good question would build on existing research and investigate how to increase the amount and intensity of effective instruction.”

Gabriel and Allington (2012) recommend five questions to guide teacher evaluation reform, instead of VAM or other student-outcome-based initiatives:

“Do evaluation tools inspire responsive teaching or defensive conformity?…

“Do evaluation tools reflect our goals for public education?…

“Do evaluation tools encourage teachers to use text in meaningful ways?…

“Do evaluation tools spark meaningful conversations with teachers?…

“Do evaluation tools promote valuable education experiences?”

Again, these guidelines are evidence-based alternatives to discredited and experimental commitments to the misrepresented evidence in the report from LWV SC, but SC remains overburdened by issues related to equity and opportunity that outweigh the need to reform teacher evaluation at this time.

How Should SC Proceed with Teacher Quality and Retention?

On balance, this report misrepresents teacher quality and overstates the need and ability to identify high-quality teachers using VAM and other performance-based policies. The flaws in this report grow from an over-reliance on misguided and misrepresented research and advocacy while ignoring the rich and detailed evidence from the full body of research on teacher quality. Finally, the report concludes by discrediting SC’s current teacher evaluation system (ADEPT) in the context of the inaccurate and distorted claims in the report.

Ultimately, the report encourages SC to spend valuable time and resources on policies that are dwarfed by more pressing needs facing the state and its public schools—a failure of state leadership replicated in the perpetual retooling of state education standards (Common Core State Standards adoption) and high-stakes testing based on revised standards. In short, SC has a number of social and educational challenges that need addressing before the state experiments with revising teacher evaluation and retention policies, including the following:

• Identify how better to allocate state resources to address childhood and family poverty, childhood food security, children and family access to high-quality health care, and stable, well paying work for families.

• Replace current education policies based on accountability, standards, and testing with policies that address equity and opportunity for all students.

• Address immediately the greatest teacher quality issue facing SC’s public schools—inequitable distribution of teacher quality among students in greatest need (high-poverty children, children of color, ELL, and special needs students).

• Address immediately the conditions of teaching and learning in the state’s schools, including issues of student/teacher ratios, building conditions and material availability, administrative and community support of teachers, equitable school funding and teacher salaries, teacher job security and academic freedom in a right-to-work state, and school safety.

Any policy changes that further entrench the culture of testing in SC as a mechanism for evaluating students, teachers, and schools perpetuate the burden of inequity in the state and schools.

SC does not need new standards, new tests, or a new teacher evaluation system. All of these practices have been implemented in different versions with high-stakes attached for the past thirty years—with the current result being the same identified failures with public schools that were the basis of these policies.

SC, like much of the US, needs to come to terms with identifying problems first before seeking solutions. The problems are ones of equity and opportunity, and no current teacher evaluation plan is facing those realities, including this report.

[1] For additional examinations of out-of-school factors compared to teacher quality and in-school factors see Berliner, 2009, 2014; Hirsch, 2007; Rothstein, 2010; Traub, 2000.

[2] Also see Di Carlo, 2011, on TNTP.

[3] For evaluations of NCTQ and Gates see the following: (a) NCTQ: Benner, 2012; Merrill & Ingersoll, 2010; Baker, 2010, January 29; Baker, 2010, October 8; Baker, 2010, December 4, and (b) Gates: Baker, 2010, December 13; Baker, 2011, March 2; Libby, 2012; [Gates MET Project] Gabriel & Allington, 2012; Rubinstein, 2013, January 13; Rubinstein, 2013, January 9; Baker, 2013, January 9; Glass, 2013, January 14; Rothstein & Mathis, 2013

[4] For comprehensive examinations of research on VAM, see Di Carlo, 2012, November 13*; Di Carlo, 2012, April 12 (reliability); Di Carlo, 2012, April 18 (validity); Baker, 2012, May 28 (misrepresentations of VAM); Baker, et al., 2010, August 27; Ewing, 2011, May. For recent concerns about legal action and VAM-based teacher evaluation, see Baker, Oluwole, & Green, 2013; Pullin, 2013

* Di Carlo remains a proponent of including VAM in teacher evaluations.

References

Berliner, D. C. (2014). Effects of inequality and poverty vs. teachers and schooling on America’s youth. Teachers College Record, 116(1). Retrieved from http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=16889

Berliner, D. C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/poverty-and-potential

Gabriel, R., & Allington, R. (2012, November). The MET Project: The wrong 45 Million dollar question. Educational Leadership, 70(3), 44-49. Retrieved from http://216.78.200.159/Documents/RandD/Teacher%20Evaluation/MET%20Project%20-%20Wrong%2045%20Millon%20Question%20-%20Gabriel.pdf

Hirsch, D. (2007, September). Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage. York, North Yorkshire, UK: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/findings/socialpolicy/2123.asp

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/TQReportJune2006.pdf

Rothstein, R. (2010, October 14). How to fix our schools. Issue Brief 286. Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/ib286

Thomas, P. L. (2011, December). Teacher quality and accountability: A failed debate. Daily Censored. Retrieved from http://www.dailycensored.com/teacher-quality-and-accountability-a-failed-debate/

Traub, J. (2000, January 16). What no school can do. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://local.provplan.org/pp170/materials/what%20no%20school%20can%20do.htm