Value-added fever in Las Vegas
Sent to the Las Vegas Review Journal, August 29, 2010
Value-added tests, championed by the Los Angeles Times, gives teachers high ratings if their students make gains on standardized tests, low ratings if they don't. John Brummett thinks that those opposed to using value-added tests to measure teacher effectiveness are opposed to evaluating teacher effectiveness ("Thinking – it only hurts a little, August 29). Not at all.
There are serious problems with using value-added. Studies show that a rating done one year does a poor job of predicting next year's score increases, as research also shows that ratings appear to be test-dependent: A teacher's rating based on one reading test will not always agree with the same teacher's ratings based on a different reading test.
Also, it is easy to game the system when value-added is used: providing students with test-taking strategies results in higher scores without students learning anything.
LA Times reporters should have known about these problems. They didn't do their homework.
No serious educator is opposed to evaluating teachers. But value-added testing is a lousy way to do it.
JOHN BRUMMETT: Thinking -- it only hurts a little
Las Vegas Review-Journal, Aug 29, 2010
Some of you can keep calling President Obama a left-wing radical and European socialist all you want. It spares any serious individual thinking, which might hurt.
But the teacher unions are apt these days to call Obama a right-winger and blankety-blank. It spares any serious individual This dichotomy is easily explained in three statements.
One is that Obama, as a new-generation progressive, harbors occasional nontraditional new thinking on occasional contemporary issues, most prominently on education.
Two is that our political labels have become tired and outdated among some of the myriad modern challenges, more valuable these days for incendiary name-calling and mindless polarization by the political self-preservationists than for legitimate definition of public policy differences.
Three is that teacher unions are marginalizing and isolating themselves on the left fringe by clinging to a status quo while the performance of American public schools slips in international ratings and while, year after year, our schools fail poor students, perpetuating an underclass and cycle of despair.
So it came to be a couple of weeks ago that the Los Angeles Times unveiled an initiative to do what the Los Angeles Unified School District would not do for fear of the union.
That was to take six years' worth of student scores on standardized tests in elementary grades and compile a publicly disseminated database of how teachers comparatively performed on a "value-added" basis, meaning in the improvement of their students on standardized test scores from the beginning of school years to the end.
The idea is that teachers ought to be compensated on a merit system crediting most those whose students improved over a designated instructional period by the greater amount on standardized tests.
The further idea -- the bigger and more relevant one -- is that such an inventory would give us an idea how to identify the poorer performers among teachers and get them improved.
So the local teacher union called a boycott of the newspaper, which was a splendid example to parents and students in how to engage in fair, civil and productive public dialogue.
The union said a faculty is a team and that one teacher with clever ideas for teaching fractions wouldn't share those ideas with another teacher if a monetary reward was at stake. Anyway, they said, you can't judge a teacher solely by a standardized test, because there's the matter of connecting with kids and inspiring them.
There's truth in that, of course. There's always nuance, subtlety and thinking-induced complication. But there's also a time-honored truth in taking a test to see what you've learned and in getting graded on the score.
The latest from the teacher union is that it might go along with a value-added assessment as a minor nonpublic component of teacher evaluations.
Obama, through his Chicago-based education secretary, Arne Duncan, gets off the typical liberal reservation here. He advocates these publicly disclosed value-added findings. Duncan had some ability in Chicago advocating similar reforms and keeping teacher unions reasonably calm. Naturally, the entire nation poses a bigger challenge.
Last week Duncan came to Little Rock to deliver a lecture at Bill Clinton's presidential library. States and school districts, he said, need to make public the kind of information the Times had published. "The truth is always hard to swallow, but it can only make us better, stronger and smarter," he said.
Then Duncan switched from preaching to meddling, saying, "If it was up to me and the law allowed it, I would put out student attendance data and hold parents accountable."
My goodness. Holding teachers and parents publicly accountable for the services to our children in our crisis-ridden public educational system -- what are we ever to call that in our quick-and-easy system of handy labeling along the American political spectrum?
Imagine: What if we thought about this blind to the angry preconceptions and divisions of our silly labels?
John Brummett (email@example.com), an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president.