Don’t Buy Bluster from Teacher Quality VAM-pires

The responses are predictable online and through social media any time I address teacher quality and policy focusing on teacher evaluation such as my recent commentary on Charleston adopting value-added methods (VAM).

How dare I, some respond, suggest that teacher quality does not matter!

The pattern is exhausting because most responding in indignation first misrepresent what I have claimed and then make the most extreme arguments themselves in order to derail the conversation along their own agenda, usually linked to the charter school movement grounded in teacher bashing and making unobtainable promises.

So let me state here that the central elements of what we know about teacher quality and efforts such as VAM-based teacher evaluation is that teacher quality is not an independent variable (any teacher may be effective for one student and ineffective for another, for example) and, since student high-stakes testing is not designed to measure teacher quality and is more strongly linked to out-of-school factors, VAM is both a horrible technique for identifying teacher quality and, ironically, a guaranteed process for devaluing the importance of teachers.

Teacher quality is unparalleled in importance in terms of student learning, but it is also nearly impossible to measure, quantify—especially through student scores on high-stakes standardized tests.

Teacher quality VAM-pires, then, often have agendas [1] that are masked by their bluster about teacher quality.

Trying to measure and quantify teacher quality is a mistake; linking any evaluation of teacher quality to student test scores lacks validity and reliability—and VAM discourages teachers from teaching the most challenging populations of students (high-poverty, special needs, English language learners).

Focusing on simplistic and inappropriate measures reduces teacher impact to 10-15% of what high-stakes standardized testing measures; in other words, VAM itself devalues teacher quality.

My informed argument, based on 18 years as a public school classroom teacher and 15 years as a teacher educator and scholar, then, is that we must recognize teacher quality is impacted by teacher preparation, teaching/learning conditions, student characteristics, and dozens of other factors inside and outside of schools—many of which are beyond the control of teachers or students.

As well, we must address the teacher quality issues that political and administrative leaders can control: class size, school funding, and most important of all, teacher assignment.

Just as decades of research have revealed that teacher quality accounts for no more than 10-15% of student test scores, decades of research show that affluent and white students are assigned the most experienced and certified teachers while poor and black/brown students are assigned new/inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers.

The charter school crowd’s bluster about teacher quality is pure hokum because charter schools increase that inequity of teacher assignment by depending on new and uncertified teachers such as candidates from Teach For America.

No one is saying teacher quality does not matter—I clearly am not saying that—but dishonesty about teacher quality does lay at the feet of the edu-reformers and the VAM-pires who wave their collective arms any time we call them on their failed policies and their political agendas.

[1] See the evangelical urge of Broad-trained acolytes, the resume building and cut-and-run patterns of edu-reformers, and the post-truth practices of turn-around and charter advocacy.

VAM, Teacher Bashing, and Unintended Outcomes: “[A]ll [teacher] exits increased under the new evaluations”

Research analysis at Shanker Blog is among the very best available online, notably the work of Matthew Di Carlo.

The posts there are predictably nuanced and careful, dispassionate—to a fault. As a critical educator, I am on edge when I read these careful explications of educational research because they tend to stand so far back from drawing critical conclusions that they leave a great deal of room for forgiving awful and baseless policy.

Teacher Evaluations And Turnover In Houston is an extremely important post as it unpacks new research on the current era of teacher evaluations spawned during the Obama years, notably the increased use of value-added methods (VAM) that link teacher quality to student test scores.

I highly recommend reading the post in full, but here I want to add a few annotations to address both my concerns the analysis tip-toes when it should stomp and to emphasize a few key takeaways well addressed by Di Carlo.

Let me share a few passages, and I will boldface what I want to address; first, the opening:

We are now entering a time period in which we might start to see a lot of studies released about the impact of new teacher evaluations. This incredibly rapid policy shift, perhaps the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s education efforts, was sold based on illustrations of the importance of teacher quality.

The basic argument was that teacher effectiveness is perhaps the most important factor under schools’ control, and the best way to improve that effectiveness was to identify and remove ineffective teachers via new teacher evaluations. Without question, there was a logic to this approach, but dismissing or compelling the exits of low performing teachers does not occur in a vacuum. Even if a given policy causes more low performers to exit, the effects of this shift can be attenuated by turnover among higher performers, not to mention other important factors, such as the quality of applicants (Adnot et al. 2016).

To address incredibly flawed educational policy, I believe we must be much more careful about distinguishing between political/public claims and then how the research community poses the same issues.

As Adam Bessie has outlined, the “bad” teacher myth was never “sold” in the ways Di Carlo notes above. The film Waiting for Superman is a powerful example of how political and public discourse about “bad” teachers was primarily an argument that teacher quality was the singular or most important factor in student learning, period; politicians and the public almost never added the caveat “most important in-school factor.”

And we must acknowledge that the “bad” teacher movement driving new teacher evaluations including VAM was significantly grounded in anti-union sentiment and union-busting objectives—not about teacher quality or student learning.

The nuanced argument about teacher quality, in fact, was most often expressed among some researchers, while mostly absent from the media or political discourse, such as Di Carlo (from 2010):

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. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Next, further into the recent post:

Prior to ETI, there was a negative relationship between teacher effectiveness and exits – i.e., less effective teachers were more likely to exit than their more effective colleagues, with effectiveness here defined in terms of validated measures of teachers’ ability to raise students’ test scores (in part because the original value-added scores, unlike the other components of the system, are available both before and after the new evaluations were implemented).

A strong footnote for this important point—so-called weaker teachers were already leaving—is that the real teacher quality problems facing schools, notably high-poverty schools serving vulnerable populations of students, are a lack of equity in terms of teacher assignment (poor students, black/brown students, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned year after year to new or inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers; white and affluent students are gifted the most experienced and certified teachers) and the debilitating grind of high teacher attrition, turnover, in high-poverty and majority-minority schools.

Just as school choices increases educational problems such as segregation, VAM-based teacher evaluation does not address the real problems—equitable access to experienced and qualified teacher, and teacher turnover in high-poverty schools—while also increasing those problems.

And finally:

The big finding of Cullen et al. is that the relationship was stronger after the onset of the new evaluation system, with the estimated effects concentrated among low-performing teachers in schools serving low-performing students, who were more likely to exit the district than they were before ETI.

On the one hand, this suggests that the new evaluations worked as intended. Under a system in which principals were armed with better information about their teachers’ performance (full evaluation results instead of single year value-added scores), teachers who were less effective in raising test scores were more likely to exit the district (or be dismissed) post-ETI than they were prior to ETI, particularly in schools serving lower performing students. On the other hand, all exits increased under the new evaluations — including among teachers who were rated as average and high performers. The extent to which this spike is attributable to the new evaluation system per se is unclear, but it served to “dilute” the impact on student achievement of the increase in exits among low performers. There is also some indication that higher-rated teachers were more likely to switch out of schools with low-performing students after ETI (versus before the policy), which would also attenuate the impact of the policy.

The Big Caveat, of course, is that this evaluation process and concurrent analysis remain trapped in the efficient (read: lazy) use of test scores by students to determine teacher quality and effectiveness. That said, this study seems to show that VAM-type evaluations may actually push out so-called weak teachers—while also pushing out so-called effective and experienced teachers.

This preliminary evidence supports what many of us have been warning about during the Obama era of education reform: The “bad” teacher approach to education reform causes more harm than good because it misrepresents teacher quality and further de-professionalizes teaching, such as eroding the current teacher work force and discouraging the so-called “best and brightest” from choosing education as their career.

Di Carlo continues to offer incredibly important education research analysis, and I highly recommend anyone interested in education reform to return to this blog regularly. There you will find careful and crisp analysis—although I will continue to hope for the sort of analysis that will critically confront what lies beneath the political and public discourse about schools, education, teachers, and students.

The story inside the story of the research analyzed above is that beneath the “bad” teacher approach to education reform is a great deal of bad politics and bad media; and we must stop tip-toeing around those facts.

Why No Accountability for the Accountability Hawks?

It is a disturbingly easy list to make: police officers shooting/killing defenseless black males and females, Rush Limbaugh, OJ Simpson, Karl Rove, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, ad infinitum.

Those shielded by privilege (wealth, race, celebrity, status) from the consequences of being held accountable for their actions.

And what is most disturbing is that among accountability hawks, those are the people least likely to be held accountable.

In the accountability era of education reform, the accountability hawks have been left unscathed even as they work to create school choice (public funds sent to private schools outside the accountability paradigm), more charter schools (relieved of accountability), and uncertified teachers (Teach For America).

Those accountability hawks, the politicians and the billionaire education hobbyists, are never held accountable as each policy and reform-of-the-day fails before s/he moves on to the next Great Reform.

Complicit in this failure to hold accountability hawks accountable have been spineless edujournalism and edupresses that have abdicated their role to press release journalism in the service of the edureformers.

And thus, as Audrey Amrein-Beardsley details:

Just this week, in Education Week — the field’s leading national newspaper covering K–12 education — a blogger by the name of Matthew Lynch published a piece explaining his “Five Indisputable [emphasis added] Reasons Why You Should Be Implementing Value-Added Assessment.”

I’m going to try to stay aboveboard with my critique of this piece, as best I can, as by the title alone you all can infer there are certainly pieces (mainly five) to be seriously criticized about the author’s indisputable take on value-added (and by default value-added models (VAMs)). I examine each of these assertions below, but I will say overall and before we begin, that pretty much everything that is included in this piece is hardly palatable, and tolerable considering that Education Week published it, and by publishing it they quasi-endorsed it, even if in an independent blog post that they likely at minimum reviewed, then made public.

Shame on Lynch, shame on EdWeek, but this is hardly anything out of the ordinary.

This is edujournalism as we have known it for decades now.

All hail the accountability hawks, and let neither evidence nor accountability deter their march!

Weekend Quick Takes June 25-26

Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:

Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”

It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.

Also see his co-authored Actuating equity?: Historical and contemporary analyses of African American access to selective higher education from Sweatt to the Top 10% Law

There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:

Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”

Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.

The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.

And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.

In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.

Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.

In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.

I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.

My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.

While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.

Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.

If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.

Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).

Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.

See the abstract:

Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.

This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.

And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.

Here’s just a taste:

Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.

Questions for the P&C about School Closure, Takeover

The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).

Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:

How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?

Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?

Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.

At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.

Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”

As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.

But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.

So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:

  • Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
  • Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
  • And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.

This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:

But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.

SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.

For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?

Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.

Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”

How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?

A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.

Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.

As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.

Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.

So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?

The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:

Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.

And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.

That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.

Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.

One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:

Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?

The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.

You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.

And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.

The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?

The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.

Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”

That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.

And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.

Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.

Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.

Dear EWA:

Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.

Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.

Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.

Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.

Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.

Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.

Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.

I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.

As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.

We both can and should do better.

VAM-pire Metrics and the Cost of Using Students as Weapons of Mass Instruction

It is generally obnoxious to say “I told you so,” but since I am often accused of being obnoxious even when I am not intending to be, I’ll risk this: I told you so.

While speaking recently to an education law class of doctoral students, I revisited my argument that using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate, retain/fire, and reward teachers has an incredibly negative consequence: Teachers are being incentivized to use their students as mechanisms for their own job security and pay and to hope their students outperform other teachers’ students.

Being perhaps too snarky two years ago I framed this as using students as weapons of mass instruction.

I have always been disappointed that my point has gained little traction and even prompted a great deal of push back, but I am now pleased to direct everyone to a new analysis by Susan Moore Johnson, Harvard Graduate School of Education: Will VAMS Reinforce the Walls of the Egg-Crate School?

Johnson, I believe, makes a comprehensive and compelling case against VAM that in many ways reinforces my argument.

The analysis begins by acknowledging the rise in concern about teacher quality as well as offering a detailed challenge to overly simplistic considerations of teacher quality and the role it plays in student achievement.

Johnson notes that the political and bureaucratic rise in embracing VAM has received considerable push back by teachers, building to her focus for the analysis:

In this article I bring an organizational perspective to the prospect of using VAMS to improve teacher quality. I suggest why, in addition to VAMS’ methodological limitations, reformers should be very cautious about relying on VAMS to make decisions that teachers view as important. Because the wide-scale use of VAMS is very recent, scant research exists with which to answer the organizational questions about the intended and unintended consequences of using VAMS in making consequential staffing decisions. However, relevant research about teachers and school improvement, coupled with my own experiences working with states and districts that are implementing new teacher evaluations, lead me to suggest that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.

Instead of focusing on individual teacher quality, Johnson argues for a more comprehensive approach:

Recent studies have persuasively documented the benefits of systematic efforts to improve student learning through schoolwide improvement initiatives (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Easton, & Luppescu, 2010; Little, 1982; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001;Rosenholtz, 1989). Because students move through schools from class to class or grade to grade, they are better served when human resources are deliberately organized to draw on the strengths of all teachers on behalf of all students, rather than having students subjected to the luck of the draw in their classroom assignment. Successful schoolwide improvement increases norms of shared responsibility among teachers and creates structures and opportunities for learning that promote interdependence—rather than independence—among them. By contrast, a strategy for school improvement that focuses substantially on identifying, assigning, and rewarding or penalizing individual teachers for their effectiveness in raising students’ test scores depends primarily on the strengths of individual teachers.

Broadly, evidence shows that schools should function within a culture of collaboration and not competition (another “I told you so,” sorry).

The unintended consequences, then, far outweigh the claimed advantages of measuring, identifying, and retaining “good” teachers. Johnson identifies the following unintended consequences:

Therefore, heavy reliance on VAMS may lead effective teachers in high-need subjects and schools to seek safer assignments, where they can avoid the risk of low VAMS scores. Meanwhile, some of the most challenging teaching assignments would remain difficult to fill and likely be subject to repeated turnover, bringing steep costs for students….

Given that reality, it seems possible that when districts rely on VAMS for a substantial part of teachers’ evaluations, their teachers may pull back from sharing collegial responsibility for the students in a school….

As more states require that teacher evaluations include both classroom observations and data from standardized tests of student achievement, principals who are not instructional experts will be left to interpret discrepancies between what they see in the classroom and what they read on a VAMS score sheet. Will they doubt the validity of their observations or the accuracy of the VAMS score? If they are uncertain about judging instruction or believe VAMS to be more objective and precise than their own professional judgment, value-added scores may unduly influence their decisions….

In line with Coleman’s (1988) theory about social capital, this suggests that a school would do better to invest in promoting collaboration, learning, and professional accountability among teachers and administrators than to rely on VAMS scores in an effort to reward or penalize a relatively small number of teachers.

Ultimately, commitments to VAM prove to be based on ideology, including a conscious effort to ignore evidence—a great irony considering VAM advocates are calling for dat-driven teacher quality policies.

Addressing the inequity in every child’s life outside of school and also recalibrating the culture of school—toward collaboration and away from competition—would both reap great rewards for children and society.

Plowing forward with VAM will, I guarantee, continue to bleed our field and our schools dry.

For Further Reading

The Constitutional Challenge to Teacher Tenure, Derek W. Black

Merit pay could revive child labor, Stephanie Jones