Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Value-Added: What Can Be Done with it and What Can't (and What Won;t)

As the new school year inevitably and inexorably draws near, I've been thinking a lot about the new rules that may soon govern our profession. I've said all along that the current evaluation method for teachers is broken. It's one of the few things on which the "reformers" and me can agree. Where we tend to part company, of course, is the importance of test scores to teacher evaluation and, indeed, what teachers can actually do and control in their classrooms and practice. Any teacher who's been at it longer than five minutes can tell you that what you can actually do is much less than a lot of people actually think. That doesn't diminish the importance of what we actually can do--indeed, it makes the pieces of the achievement pie that constitute quality planning, instruction, and management all the more important for us to get right. But still, our effectiveness is, to some degree, always and already limited.

This piece helped me crystallize my thoughts on teacher evaluation, test scores, and the whole "value-added" proposition. Corey Bunje Bower parses some writing from The New Teacher Project pretty finely, making a distinction between the "blame-the-teacher" and the "anti-teacher" crowd. I've wondered myself if they aren't two different groups. You can blame teachers for problems in school, yes, but the flip side of that is that you can't celebrate the achievements of the good teachers out there if you're going to say that teaching is 100% chance. We do have some control, and we can argue all day about how much, over what happens in our classrooms. If we don't, then we don't deserve any credit for the good things that happen, either. The "blame-the-teacher" crowd might, from time to time, have a point, whereas the "anti-teacher" folks are your basic bitter teacher-haters.

So back to test scores. Test scores can (or maybe, given the crappy state of standardized testing now, could) tell us something about how much our students are learning and with which students and groups of students we have the most (and least) success. But they should be only a minor part of the evaluation process. The group of students we get is one of those things that is out of our control. We get students ready and unready for school, compliant and recalcitrant, engaged and disengaged, English-speaking and non-English-speaking...the list goes on and on.

Which brings me to my next point. What I suspect won't actually be done with test scores anytime soon is actually calibrate groups of students and teachers more finely. If tests were really good, and if they were scored really well, maybe what test scores could eventually do is tell us which class of students would be our ideal. Maybe, for example, my class should be stocked with female English language learners, since I tend to do well with that group. But will that actually happen? I doubt it. You'd need to be able to do much more in terms of class size and teacher assignment than is currently possible.

So perhaps the single most useful thing that can be done with test scores probably won't be. Which makes me wonder why some people are so keen on bludgeoning teachers to death with them. And that makes me wonder which side the education reformers are really on: "anti-teacher" or "blame the teacher." It can't, it would seem, be both.

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