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Bruno: Looking For VAM Alternatives

BubbleThe recent outrage over the publication of individual teacher value-added scores was, in my view, totally justified since that sort of data dump obscures more than it illuminates for the public, and at substantial cost to the teachers involved.

What I didn't hear much of  in the hubbub, however, were recommendations for a positive agenda to avoid similar sorts of fiascoes in the future. If, like many commentators seem to do, you take it for granted that the publication of VAM scores was primarily an act of intentional malice toward teachers, then it's admittedly hard to see a way to avoid similar battles in the future. My own sense, though, is that VAM scores are being published in large part because there is a very real hunger for objective measures of teacher quality and nobody else is doing a very good job of satisfying that demand.

To be clear, I have heard a number of arguments about how the process of teacher evaluation could be improved, for example through peer review or incorporating "multiple measures". Those might or might not be good ideas, but I think they fail to scratch the teacher evaluation itch for most people because they mostly neglect the content of the evaluation - that is, the metrics by which teachers will be evaluated.

VAM appeals to people because it offers a (superficially) plausible-sounding account of what makes a good teacher: student learning as measured by standardized tests.  That's a too-simplistic view of teaching by far, but our profession hasn't exactly done a good job of clearly defining an alternative. I think a "best practices" approach is most promising, but there's surprisingly little agreement about what such practices might be.

Lots of teachers have opinions about good teaching, of course, but consensus is disappointingly elusive. Just in the last couple of weeks two examples of the profession's mixed messages jumped out at me. 

First, Science is running a competition to promote inquiry-based instruction in classrooms. Meanwhile, researchers writing in American Educator make the case that "fully-guided" instruction is in fact superior to inquiry-based methods. Second, while the Fordham Institute lavished praise on the state of California's science content standards, a report from West Ed just weeks later suggested that middle school science education in California is weak in part because the state standards are excessively broad.

These examples represent very important, fundamental disagreements about best practices in education - more-guided vs. less-guided instruction and breadth vs. depth in content, respectively. Ideally these would be settled questions, and yet to all appearances the field of education as a whole is entirely incoherent on them. It seems to me that until we're able to implement evaluation systems that incorporate a professional consensus about best practices we're going to be fighting never-ending battles against inferior methods of evaluation.

(For the curious, I'm firmly in the guided instruction camp and mostly with Fordham on standards.)  - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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I sure don't see a "very real hunger" from people with "a (superficially) plausible-sounding account of what makes a good teacher" and who need to "scratch the teacher evaluation itch" because they crave a better understanding of "the content of the evaluation." I do see teacher-bashing. They'd never evaluate respected professals in such a primitive way.

I agree with the guided instruction camp, also. But that cuts two ways. Its a powerful argument against teacherless schools and that's were this standardized testing craze is heading us towards. Besides, you don't set out to destroy a profession, I mean "status quo," because you disagree over the balance between minimally and fully guided instruction. (I also see Common Core as a diversion, at best. Social studies standards are already as good as they can get, so what explains the lousy instruction being made worse by the bubble-in craze?)

@John - I think it's not credible that all or nearly all of the dissatisfaction with current teacher evaluation practices can be chalked up to "teacher bashing", especially since so many of the people I know who are dissatisfied are teachers themselves and find the processes arbitrary in a lot of ways. I also don't think it lines up with survey data about how the general public feels about teachers.

Of course, some of it is, in fact, just shallow teacher bashing. But sweeping all of the problems with teacher evaluation under that rug is unlikely to move us to greater respect as a profession. My point was that I think coherent "best practices" would be a step in that direction, and I'm not really sure I heard a disagreement from you on that point.

Fundamentally, firing teachers today with a theoretical model as it is under construction violates common sense, common decency, good judgment, and professionalism. I stand by my position that they would never do that to people who they respect.

I support best practices, including the tackling of the complex issue of teacher evaluations in a way that respects education, the rule of law, and evidence.

I agree completely with all of that. Strongly so, in fact. So I think we only disagree on the narrow question of whether VAM debacles are due almost entirely to willful teacher bashing or are due in some significant part to good-faith dissatisfaction with teacher evaluation.

If there were good faith involved, those pushing VAM would listen to the many learned and authoritative voices that discredit test scores as a valid measure of teacher effectiveness, while taking note of the near-total-absence of such voices supporting the concept. And they'd scrap the idea based on the other obvious flaws, such as the Grand Canyon-size margin for error.

My view: It's more a desire to exploit legitimate dissatisfaction with teacher evaluation for different agendas -- whether it's further demoralizing and deprofessionalizing teachers or creating revivifying buzz for your dying product, as with the Los Angeles Times debacle.

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