"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Guest Post: What was DiCarlo thinking?

Dr. John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood.By John Thompson

As conservative school "reformers" bemoan their defeat in the 2012 election, and as some seem to admit the failure of their "reforms," some accountability hawks are doing some self-criticism. For instance, Fordham's Kathleen Porter-Magee says that the reform movement suffers from "group think," and it could be heading for its educational Bay of Pigs. Porter-Magee criticizes her allies' demonization of educators, but she still suggests there is an equivalency in this educational civil war. She still seems to believe that teachers who are fighting back against an unprovoked assault launched against us share complicity in the venous politics of school reform.

Exhibit A in demonstrating that educators' struggle to defend our profession is different is Matt DiCarlo's "Value-Added for the Record." At a time when test-driven evaluations are reeling from political defeats, when many or most teachers want to drive a stake through their heart, DiCarlo, argues that "value-added should be given a try in new teacher evaluations." He is uncomfortable with counting test score growth as 40-50% of a teacher's evaluation, but he seemed willing to count it as 10 to 15% of an evaluation.

When I first read DiCarlo's position, I was stunned. The last thing our schools need is another rationale for standardized testing. It was not shocking, however, that a researcher who writes for the union-affiliated Shanker Institute would take such an unlikely position. Teachers and our representatives come from a tradition which defends dissent. I think he is dead wrong on this one. But, I read DiCarlo's take on value-added as an eloquent testimony regarding the difference between the two sides of the school reform wars. Teachers and unions remain open to the clash of differing ideas. We do not impose litmus tests. So, I offer this critique in that spirit.

DiCarlo is "frequently taken aback by the unadulterated certainty" about "this completely untested policy" known as value-added evaluations. His analysis tends to focus on things he is qualified to discuss, research design details and their policy implications. DiCarlo does not try to be a "armchair policy general when it's not my job or working conditions that might be on the line."

One problem with DiCarlo's position is that there is no offer on the table to reduce the bubble-in component of evaluations to 10 to 15%. If such a compromise were enacted, the harm done by value-added would be diminished. On the other hand, under NCLB graduation and attendance rates often count for about 10%, but few metrics has been subject to as much gamesmanship as those two. And, even though they account for a seemingly small percentage of a school's report card, they have prompted a series of destructive policies, from so-called "credit recovery" to tricks for making absences disappear, that have done real harm to schools.

That leads to the biggest problem with DiCarlo's logic regarding this issue. He sees that "value-added is the front line soldier in that larger war" and, correctly, seeks to deescalate. Then, he makes the leap to viewing value-added for high-stakes decisions as "a related yet in many respects separate question, and a largely empirical one at that." So, "That's the whole idea of giving something a try - to see how it works out."

DiCarlo's proposal ignores the most important half of the equation - students. He seems to be saying that teachers should not fight against efforts to use our students as lab rates. If the most likely outcome occurs and value-added evaluations drive more talent from the schools where it is harder to raise test scores, how long will it take to undo the damage? In districts where value-added prompts more bubble-in malpractice, how long will students pay for that experiment?

But, here's the key point in my disagreement with DiCarlo on his post. If we respect differences in opinions and maintain our faith in the honest clash of ideas, we and our students will win. Especially in regard to high stakes uses of value-added, if policy-makers would also respect the rules of evidence, educators would come out fine. So, education must remain true to the scientific method. We must continue to revere the principle of the peer review of evidence, and that means we respect our colleagues who reach differing conclusions. Nobody is immune to "group think." As long as we welcome opinions such as the one that DiCarlo presented, however, we can make the case that educators obey a set of values that are not equivalent to those of the data-driven crowd.

I still have to ask, however, what was DiCarlo thinking ...?

Dr. John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com, and huffingtonpost.com, and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside.

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