Hester Prynne, Arne Duncan, Value-Added Modeling and the Stigma of Failure: Grading Teachers and Schools Will Not Create An Exemplary School System, “The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves” Philosophy Does Not Make Better Teachers.


If you’re an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles you logged on to the LA Times website with trepidation, typed in your name, and saw a number pop up on the screen.  Years of teaching, thousands of hours of preparation, scores of supervisory visits to your classroom, dozens of satisfactory written observation reports reduced to a number, a percent, you’re either a success or a failure, an entire career encapsulated in a single number.
The “grade” is the result of a labor economist, Richard Buddin, crunching numbers, in an extremely dense study entitled, “How Effective Are Los Angeles Elementary Teachers and Schools?” His study posits three questions,
* How much does teacher quality vary from school to school and teacher to teacher?
* What teacher qualities and backgrounds are associated with success in the classroom?
* How do measures of school performance compare with value-added measures of teacher and school effect?
Buddin concludes that teacher quality, as measured by value-added modeling varies greatly from school to school, from teacher to teacher, teacher qualifications and backgrounds have no impact on teacher quality, and traditional measures of teacher and school quality do not compare with value-added measures. Class size has no impact on student achievement. Lack of teaching experience only matters in the first few years, beyond that experience, degrees, certification or lack thereof do not effect student outcome. School poverty indices have no impact.
Buddin speculates, without any evidence, that merit pay may produce better teachers.
Teacher quality, as measured by value-added, appears to be random.
He has no idea why some teachers, utilizing VAM formulae, appear to be more successful than others.
Coincidentally another report was released.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has released a policy paper that seriously questions the entire value-added modeling (VAM) philosophy. The paper is co-authored by a glittering list of highly respected educators. The report, “Problems With the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers” agrees that the current teacher evaluation system is broken, but warns,
…there is broad agreement among statisticians, psychometricians and economists that student test scores alone are not sufficiently reliable indictors of teacher effect to be used in high stakes personnel decisions even when the most sophisticated statistical applications such as VAM  are used.
In spite of the doubts expressed by the likes of Linda Darling-Hammond, Richard Rothstein, Diane Ravitch and a host of deans of major education institutions the Secty of Education is wedded to the use of VAM data to evaluate teachers.
In a speech in Arkansas Duncan (see full text here) both supports the LA Times release of the teacher “scores” and appeals to teachers and unions,
  … no one thinks test scores should be the only factor in teacher evaluations, and no one wants to evaluate teachers based on a single test on a single day.
But looking at student progress over time, in combination with other factors like peer review and principal observation can lead to a culture shift in our schools where we finally take good teaching as seriously as the profession deserves.

This is a complicated and emotional issue for teachers, and it just got more emotional in the past 10 days with a series of articles on teacher quality published by the Los Angeles Times.

Essentially, the Times took seven years of student test data and developed what is called a “value-added” analysis to show which third- through fifth-grade teachers are making the biggest gains. The results are about to be posted on the newspaper’s website in a searchable data base by teacher name — taking transparency to a whole new level.

I appreciate how painful this may be for these L. A. teachers, and I also appreciate the fact that even the best data systems won’t tell the whole story. That’s why it’s so important to get teacher evaluation right to ensure they look at both student learning and other factors to paint a fuller picture.

Local school districts must decide in collaboration with their teachers how to share this information — how to put it in context — and how to use it in order to get better.

If the release of the scores is “painful” and “may not tell the whole story” why does Duncan support the release of the scores?

Thousands of LA teachers, with a mouse click, were branded as failures, branded with a scarlet letter (perhaps an F” for failure rather than an “A” for adulteress). Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s the “Scarlet Letter” was not a failure,

“Never afterwards did it quit her bosom,” Hawthorne writes. “But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.”

For some the VAM grade will produce “scorn and bitterness,” the entire populace, from parents to colleagues, from kids to supervisors, can shake their finger and chant “bad teacher.”

Others will reject the stigma of a “grade,” reject the reduction of a career to a dense, unproven formula, will reject the avarice of a newspaper with an “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy. They know that they are regarded with “awe” and “reverence” by students, parents. peers and supervisors.

Schools are complex organizations and effective school leaders create synergistic energies.

Why are some schools, with same kids, far more effective than other schools?

Effective schools are characterized by schools with strong cultures,

School cultures are complex webs of traditions and rituals that have been built over time as teachers, students, parents and administrators work together and deal with crises and accomplishments. Cultural patterns are highly enduring, have a powerful impact on performance, and shape the ways people think, act, and feel. (Deal and Peterson, Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership, 1999)

None of us are in teaching to impact test scores, we are teachers to impact children. Tracy Kidder “paints education’s sacred mission,”

Good teachers and good school leaders put snags in the rivers of children passing by, and over the years, they redirect hundreds of lives. Many people find it easy to imagine unseen webs of malevolent conspiracy in the world, and they are not always wrong. But there is also an innocence that conspires to hold humanity together, and it is made up of people who can never fully know the good they have done.



3 responses to “Hester Prynne, Arne Duncan, Value-Added Modeling and the Stigma of Failure: Grading Teachers and Schools Will Not Create An Exemplary School System, “The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves” Philosophy Does Not Make Better Teachers.

  1. You gotta love Buddin’s findings:


  2. You gotta love Buddin’s findings:
    smaller classes won’t help
    teacher background and education make no difference
    teacher experience only counts if you don’t have any
    teacher quality–no idea what that means


  3. Pingback: Teacher evaluations - eduskeptic

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