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Gregory Michie

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What Value Is Added by Publicly Shaming Teachers?

Posted: 03/ 7/2012 12:22 pm

Just when you think the climate of disrespect for teachers can't get any worse, it does.

This past weekend, the Chicago Tribune's editorial board urged Illinois parents to demand that the state emulate New York City (and Los Angeles) by making individual teachers' "value-added" ratings available for public scrutiny.

For those not versed in the latest trend in educational accountability, "value-added" formulas are complex statistical calculations that attempt to isolate a teacher's impact on a student's growth -- as measured by gains on standardized test scores. In essence, value-added measures try to show how much of a student's test score increase can be chalked up solely to the influence of their teacher.

If that sounds tricky and imprecise, that's because it is -- and there's no research to show that value-added models have done anything to help teachers improve, or to help kids learn.

But why quibble with little details like those? Instead, the Tribune's editors gave a rousing endorsement not only of using value-added teacher evaluations, but of making individual teacher's ratings public.

They called value-added data the "the gold standard for teacher accountability" and "a powerful indication of a teacher's effectiveness."

Really?

Not according to Maribeth Whitehouse, a Bronx special education teacher who scored in the 99th percentile -- better than nearly all other teachers in New York City -- on the recently released value-added Teacher Data Reports (TDRs). Despite her through-the-roof rating, Whitehouse isn't hailing the evaluations. Instead, she told the New York Times' Michael Winerip that the data is "nonsense" -- and she's penning a protest letter with other high-scoring teachers.

Elizabeth Phillips, principal of P.S. 321 in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, wrote on Valerie Strauss's blog The Answer Sheet that value-added ratings for teachers in her school were "extremely inaccurate." Among many other critiques, she cites the case of one teacher who was rated near the bottom -- at the 6th percentile, according to the TDRs. In reality, Phillips writes, the "teacher in question is an exceptionally strong teacher by any other measure (parent feedback, colleague's opinions, my observations over many years)."

For those who find that evidence too anecdotal, check the findings of a 2010 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. Researchers found that value-added estimates were "subject to a considerable degree of random error" -- misclassifying teachers up to 26% of the time.

And just this week, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who has studied value-added models extensively, wrote in Education Week that such methods are "seriously flawed for evaluating individual teachers, and that rigorous, ongoing assessment by teaching experts serves everyone better."

Despite the evidence that value-added models are inconsistent, volatile, and inappropriate for assessing individual teachers, some districts and states (including Illinois) have still decided to adopt them as part of their teacher evaluation systems. It's bad enough that they're buying into an error-prone approach. But publicizing the results is beyond the pale. What possible purpose does that serve except to further disrespect and demoralize an already thoroughly bludgeoned teaching force?

Even those who advocate for the tailored use of value-added measures believe that publicizing individual teachers' ratings is flat-out wrongheaded. Douglas Harris, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who is considered a leading expert on value-added teacher evaluation, wrote that the L. A. Times publication of teachers' scores in 2010 was an "ill-conceived, headline-grabbing approach [that] will only breed mistrust among the teachers being evaluated, without doing anything to actually help students."

Harris added, "Let's hope that other districts avoid making the same mistake." Are you listening, Illinois?

If it were just the Tribune's editorial board clamoring for public value-added ratings, we might do well to just ignore them. But in the current moment, where teachers are assumed to need both constant carrots and stronger sticks in order to work harder and do better, I wouldn't be surprised to see more powerful voices join the chorus.

But we need only look to New York to witness the slippery slope that would likely result. After that city's value-added numbers were published -- inaccuracies and all -- the New York Post shamelessly ran an article about a Queens teacher it called "the city's worst" -- complete with an accompanying photo. Is the Tribune hoping for sensationalist stories like that to sell more papers?

We've already created a climate where good, hard-working educators feel justifiably discouraged and unjustly maligned. The irresponsible use of value-added models will only make things worse. Considering the tone of the public debate and the high-stakes working conditions in many schools, we should count ourselves fortunate to have so many passionate, talented, creative teachers still in the profession. Let's not give them another reason to think about leaving.