Thursday, April 21, 2011

Taking a Stand in Virginia and Texas

In the previous post on the Underground, my colleague referred to Superintendent John Kuhn of Texas testifying before the Texas legislature regarding teacher evaluation and "value-added" systems of measuring teacher effectiveness.  Across the nation, we are moving toward systems that measure the effectiveness of students, teachers, schools, and entire districts on the basis of standardized testing.  The push toward common core standards will only lead to more. (See here for a interesting post discussing merit pay and common core standards)

I am convinced that the American public agrees.  I am also convinced that our politicians, educational leaders and all of the media-endorsed experts agree that excessive standardized testing degrades our educational system.  I don't think these same leaders and "experts" understand just how much their ideas and policies that sound great in theory can do so much damage when put into practice.  Let me concede a few things:

1) The idea that every family in America can expect a consistent and quality curriculum for their students is a good idea.

2) The idea that a teacher should be evaluated based on how well they are able to move their student from one level to the next is a good idea.

3) The idea that teachers and schools should be held accountable for what and how they teach is a good idea.

Maybe that is a little common ground that we can all agree on that might help us move toward reducing our differences.  The differences arise in the methods proposed to make these ideas reality.  Organic systems work when they are sensitive to their environment and respond properly.  In the human body, this means the brain receives information from the body and responds accordingly.  Executive functions in a healthy system arise from quality feedback.  For whatever reason, the executive functioning of education policy acts independent of quality feedback.  Perhaps the teachers and students who raise their voices in opposition to the onslaught of standardized testing are seen as too self-serving.  But the survival and maturation of our system requires that decision-makers understand the impact of their decision.

That is why Superintendent Kuhn should be applauded.  Openly testifying to the Legislature that he has considered opting his child out of the testing process and publicly naming a company like Pearson, asserting that we have placed more trust in them than in our local teachers, is not the smartest political move.  Standing out against the grain of public education policy may cost him any hopes he may have had of holding higher position at state or national levels.  Calling out a player in the "industrial-educational" machine may limit his post-education employment options.  But, perhaps for these reasons he will also be taken seriously.

Virginia now stands on the verge of facing an increasing growth in the importance of standardized testing and the resources it will require of schools for administration and reporting.  It is not a secret that the state is on the "value-added" teacher evaluation bandwagon.  The secretary of Education, Gerard Robinson, belongs to the "Chiefs for Change" coalition supported and promoted by former Florida governor Jeb Bush. The group focuses on issues such as creating "value-added" evaluations for teachers and principals, stronger standards and testing, and expanded school choice.

Allowing for the "common sense" thinking that "value-added" is a reasonable method of teacher evaluation, we should consider the serious misgivings of the approach.  Just a few criticisms of the approach can be found on the blog of Harvard Education Publishing, at the National Academy of Sciences, and the Economic Policy Institute.  Full texts of the reports and studies can be found at the links above.

Further bringing Virginia into the realm of "value-added," Governor Bob McDonnell has implemented a pilot merit pay program in the state.  Closer examination of this program reveals that teachers working in "struggling schools" who succeed in raising achievement will be eligible for up to $5000 in additional pay.  The identification of deserving schools in this case does not seem clear to all, but even more problematic is the sublime move toward a value-added model on which to base this reward.  At least 40 percent of a teacher's performance evaluation must be tied to student academic performance. This includes improvements in standardized test scores.   As a "pilot" program, this appears innocuous enough, and framing the terms (a la Race to the Top) in such a carrot and stick fashion might cause  districts to run for the money.

Educators have two choices in situations like this. 1) Take the money and run, don't rock the boat, and accept this as the future and get on board early.  2) Take a stand, speak up for what's good for education, and refuse to play a role in implementation of bad policy.

I am encouraged to hear the news that district leaders in Fairfax and Loudon County are not likely to apply for this program.  I hope they follow through.  I also hope that the school board and administrators in my own county of Albemarle will not accept the advent of value-added as inevitable and take the opportunity to stand against it by refusing to apply for the funding.  To the public, refusal of this funding may appear confusing at first, but it provides an excellent opportunity for school leaders to communicate what responsible reform should look like.  Change is needed in American education, but reform such as this is no reform at all, it is more of the same "carrot and stick" motivation driven by standardization.

We would love to hear other opinions regarding the movement toward "value-added", merit pay, and especially this new Virginia policy even if you disagree.  Click the comment link below to add your thoughts.


  1. If this is going to be the norm, how about we do the same evaluations for doctors. 40% of their evaluations should be based upon the successes and failures of their patients...even if they don't take their recommended medications...

  2. I wouldn't be so opposed to part of a teacher's evaluation being based on student performance if the measure of that performance wasn't so questionable in the first place. We spend so much money on faulty assessment processes on the backside, there must be a way to shift resources toward the front side for more authentic measures of student performance.