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Let's Stop Pretending Poor Kids Can't Learn

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After decades spent studying education policy, Diane Ravitch has concluded that schools hardly matter when it comes to academic success; it's really about how much money a kid's parents make.

In an op-ed in Monday's New York Daily News, Ms. Ravitch argues that factors "outside the school are even more important than the teacher, especially family income," because rich kids' parents "take them to the library and museums... give them good medical care and nutrition... travel and... endow them with a large vocabulary before the first day of school."

This appears to be Ms. Ravitch's only argument against the public getting access to what is known as value-added data. She claims that after a "close reading," the methodology of value-added data is not to be trusted because we don't take into account things like whether children are English language learners or if live in poverty. Actually, we do, which Ms. Ravitch would know if she'd taken even a passing glance at our value-added model.

Indeed, perhaps the most crucial fact about value-added data is that it accounts for the background of students in a given teacher's classroom -- factors such as poverty level, English language proficiency, ethnicity, gender, disability status, absenteeism, the number of suspensions, and class size, just to name a few.

Here's how it works: based on all these factors affecting a student, statisticians make a prediction on how a child with a particular background will end up doing in class. They then see whether the entire class -- analyzed on a child-by-child basis -- did better or worse than was predicted; hence determining the "value-added" (or "subtracted") by a teacher. Even more, teachers are compared only to other teachers who teach the same grade and subject, and have been teaching in New York City for a similar number of years.

The last thing we want is for teachers to be judged based on factors outside their control. The value-added model ensures that this does not happen.

Ms. Ravitch also states that the data "in most cases reveal just a one-year snapshot." Again, this is incorrect. More than 63 percent of the 12,000 plus teachers we collect data on have a report based on more than one year of data, and some have data going as far back as 2005-06.

Value-added data is not the full measure of a teacher. But it is a valuable window into teacher effectiveness. The model used in New York City was first developed by Tom Kane, Jonah Rockoff, and Douglas Staiger -- all highly respected professors and researchers based at Harvard, Columbia, and Dartmouth, respectively. Today, it is generated by a team led by Rob Meyer, Director of the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to these experts, President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan has supported the use of growth models of student achievement, including value-added data, as one of a number of measures of teacher effectiveness.

We need to talk honestly about what's happening with our schools. Setting aside the fact that we believe the public and the press have a legal right to this data, we flatly reject the argument that the public is not able to understand or be trusted with it.

America is falling further behind in education at a time when the competitive pressures of the 21st century will demand more from our kids. Those like Ms. Ravitch, who defend a broken status quo, are more interested in political posturing than solutions. The public -- and the press -- are taking a hard look at our schools because we are all worried about the future of our kids. Saying that schools don't matter will only doom our kids to failure.