Monday, December 20, 2010

My Christmas gift to you: a value-added story idea.

If you go into a typical fourth-grade class—especially a high-poverty one—on test day in March, you might find a kid who arrived at the school in January, one who arrived in February, and one who arrived three days before. You’ll find several kids who receive most of their reading instruction from a pullout teacher, and others who do so in math. There will be students who spend large part of their day in a special ed room, and some in ESL. The class might have spent a large chunk of the fall with a student teacher. A couple of kids might have been swapped from the class across the hall because they had trouble getting along with their classmates.

So how much credit, or blame, for these kids’ scores on the test should be attributed to the classroom teacher? This, in a nutshell, is the “teacher of record” problem, and chances are HUGE that your state or district has not solved it, even if it is about to make (or already makes) high-stakes decisions about teachers based on those scores. 

When I went to a Vanderbilt conference on performance incentives this fall, TOR issues were the elephant in the room. In presentation after presentation, they were quietly acknowledged and just as easily dismissed. “We have not quite worked that out yet, but we’re confident in our data” was how one district official put it.

According to those in the know, it has become clear as states try to make good on their Race to the Top promises that they have no solutions to the TOR problem, if they have even considered it. If you are covering a system that is, or will be, basing any sort of meaningful decisions on value-added data, you should be writing about this. It’s a policy story that can be easily, and compellingly, illustrated with the fruits of one day’s reporting in a classroom, and given that these policies are still being shaped, you should not wait to pursue this. 


  1. Reporters and editors are not qualified to determine value added measures have the capacity to inform and improve instruction and support better outcomes for kids. It is beyond their scope. Making that determination, as the Los Angeles Times staff did, puts the press in the position of becoming judge and jury, not just messenger. That's inappropriate and out of bounds for the press.

    Jason Glass has professional involvement in education reform and has stated his position on the effectiveness in value added in assessing teachers. That's one side of a hotly debated issue. Well-informed and articulate sources for the opposing viewpoint include Richard Rothstein, Diane Ravitch, and UC-Berkeley statisticians/professors Mark Wilson and Sophia Rabe-Hesketh, among many others.

  2. I didn't try to discredit you. I identified you as a spokesperson for one side of the debate over whether value-added measures are an accurate, appropriate, effective and fair way to gauge teacher quality.

  3. My apologies for the mis-characterization Caroline. I will certainly back your assertion that there are several opinions out there about the utility of value added.

    Unfortunately, most of them are in the extremes on both sides.

  4. Jason,

    Can VAM explain what a teacher did (TOR aside)to elicit the scores of his/her students, ie. teach to the test, eliminate untested subjects, drill and kill, bribery, or just strong teaching?

    Because if the TOR issue gets fixed, it still doesn't answer these questions for me. Or am I missing something?

    Martha Infante
    Los Angeles, CA

  5. Hi Martha,

    In my humble opinion, you are missing something. VAM is a statistical model - it is not the cause of anything. Coupled with high quality assessments and an accurate teacher to student alignment process, its one measure of student progress and a teacher's effectiveness within an educational system.

    Taking any of the steps you mention to the extreme is foolish. Equally foolish is believing all teachers are of equal quality and that we should not be concerned with improving those failing our students while expanding the influence of the best teacher. Also foolish is not considering the ability to read or do math as important skills, or throwing up our hands saying that quality teaching and learning are phenomena beyond measurement and replication.

    Thanks much for the response.

    Jason Glass
    Somewhere in Indiana...