03/08/2012 10:22 am ET Updated May 05, 2012

VAMs: Building a New Social Order

Value Added Models (VAMs) are highly unreliable. There is nothing new to learn about these models. Look here, here, here, here. VAMs are not ready to use as an evaluative component in looking at teacher quality issues. Also, "Pressure to teach to these fill-in-the-bubble tests will further reduce the focus on research, writing, and complex problem-solving areas" according to Linda Darling Hammond. So why are we going forward? Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with reliably assessing teaching and learning. Maybe it's simply about the power of domination.

George Counts wrote Dare the School Build a New Social Order, in 1932 and put forth a somewhat contentious argument that public schools should be agents of change for society and "build a new social order" committed to assuaging human suffering.

Although discounted by his critics as essentially crafting a playbook for the indoctrination of socialist political ideology, the idea that schools should help shape society in beneficial ways remains a major issue in the broader context of progressive educational philosophy. However, at this point in time, most educationists would admit that Count's vision of a new social order (progressive) has never been realized.

But what if Counts was correct in his original thesis? That is, that, public schools can be used to build a new social order. And the direction of that social order is malleable allowing for those in power to shape society in ways that benefit them. In other words, if you want to control society then simply control the public schools.

  • Controlling the curriculum. For example, 10 years of No Child Left Behind has essentially destroyed a rich (humanities, art, music, physical education) curriculum by forcing teachers and schools to discount other subjects in the quest for "Adequate Yearly Progress." AYP only "counts" high stakes test scores in reading and math.
  • Controlling the working conditions. Race to the Top demands a competitive ethos in public schools and requires that schools measure "teacher effectiveness." Teacher effectiveness has been defined as the ability to raise the high stakes tests scores of school children in reading and math.
  • Controlling teachers' behaviors. According to Michael Winerip, prior to the use of VAMs New York's "fifth-grade scores have never mattered much, so teachers have been free to focus on project-based learning. While that may be good for a child's intellectual development, it is hard on a teacher's value-added score." Teacher effectiveness is calculated by trying to determine how much value a teacher added to her students' growth (VAM) on high stakes tests in only reading and math. VAMs are used to proclaim certain teachers as effective and others as needing to be fired.

What will happen next? Even though the error rates of VAMs exceed 50 percent, teachers will teach to the test more so than ever. Why? Teachers need to make a living.

Therefore, it is now guaranteed that any child in a public school whose teacher is evaluated with VAMs will receive a bare bones curriculum, focused only on isolated skills. Deep, rich language arts and literature -- gone! Powerful social studies and history -- gone! Music and the arts -- gone! Civic engagement -- gone! Engaging activities that spur creative and critical thinking -- gone! Or stated more simply -- VAMs guarantee a "new social order." A social order of obedient workers that do not ask questions! I wonder what Counts would say?