Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What is the Value-Added of a Gunshot Wound?

Recently, I was asked, "Dave: As a more experienced teacher who has a track record of helping kids reach high academic standards, what are the pros and cons of using VAM to assess both student performance and teacher effectiveness."

Here is my answer:

As a classroom teacher, I dont see any pros to me specifically vis-a-vis the latest Value-added metrics.  The whole point of Value-added is to attempt to isolate the many non-academic issues that follow a child into the classroom so that one can feel that, when they look at comparative tests scores, they are looking only at what the teacher has control over, or the teachers "value added."

The reason why I don't see VAM as helpful is because I am already in relationships with my kids.  I already know that Kevin was shot twice in the leg this year when he was caught up in a scene of random violence that is all-too-common in his neighborhood.  I already know that Shanice ran away from home for two months this fall and was living on the streets of Oakland doing God-knows-what to survive.  I already know how these incidents and hundreds like them are effecting how much and how well my children are learning.  I am already making adjustments to help these children heal from the too-adult wounds they have been afflicted with; help them move on; help them move back to something more resembling a childhood; and help them reconnect with school and learning.

In terms of the larger educational reform debate that is playing-out across the country, I think VAM is a useful tool.  While I continue to rail against any idea that a single test score can be conflated with anything as complex as "learning," I do see VAM as an attempt to acknowledge that great teaching looks different in the suburbs than it does in the ghetto.  I'm concerned that the usefulness of VAM could "rub off" onto the tests themselves, which are appalling.  The tests we have been using to "grade" public schools have been measures of only the isolated facts and simple sub-skills that are easy to measure.  They have not been the skills and knowledge we say we want children to know and be able to do when we adults sit around a table and discuss the purpose and goals of public education.  I would like VAM to be used with a far better set of assessments. 

For example, my school district, Oakland Unified, wants to know that every sophomore and junior can write an essay answering a deep and complex historical question using primary source documents.  This is a test I strongly support.  It is assessing real-world skills of document analysis, bias/perspective understanding, argumentation using evidence, and writing.  I would be happy to see a part of my evaluation as a teacher based on how well my students essays progress from Fall to Spring.  VAM may help an outside evaluator understand why Kevin and Shanice didn't improve on their writing this year, as we were working on far more important issues.  Ultimately, this is who VAM is for, it is not for the classroom teacher, it is for those who wish to evaluate the classroom teacher.

Ultimately, as it is used currently, VAM is useful to the person who is located far away from my classroom.  VAM is useful to someone who does not want to see and hear and feel the messiness of these children's lives.  VAM is useful to someone who really, really wants the job of seeing if children are learning to be as easy and convent as looking at a spreadsheet.  VAM is useful for someone who want to honestly acknowledge that thousands of American children are living in violent and impoverished neighborhoods with having to really know what that really means.  

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