Value Added?

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The general gripe is the same, whether from right, left, or center: Bad teachers are ruining America’s public schools. And the proposed solution, more and more, is for teachers to be evaluated by student test results, the better to separate the wheat from the chaff.

No matter where you look in the media today, it’s open season on public school teachers. From the liberal side, there was The New Yorker’s depressing coverage of New York City’s so-called “rubber rooms” for instructors awaiting disciplinary hearings, and The Washington Post’s strong editorial defense of the city’s controversial schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, in her battles with the District of Columbia teachers’ union. Centrist columnist David Brooks recently attacked teachers in The Atlantic. And the conservative Weekly Standard, via P.J. O’Rouke, called for doing away with public schools entirely.

Certainly, there are bad teachers out there, just as there are bad doctors, firemen, bankers, and politicians. The problem in each instance is identifying the incompetent or otherwise unsuitable and either rehabilitating or eliminating them. But while we all know that there are bad apples in every profession, it is a logical fallacy to attribute inferior student outcomes to poor individual teaching performance. An increasing crime rate is usually not the fault of bad policing by particular officers. Likewise, declines in public health generally don’t reflect the quality of your local doctors. External conditions and executive policies have far greater impact.

Suppose, for example, we could wave a magic wand and make all the bad teachers just disappear. What then? New York has now closed its rubber rooms, but even if it fired every teacher who had been assigned to them, what would be the net result? The city would save some money (a relative pittance compared to its overall budget) with which to theoretically hire a few new and superior teachers, assuming they could be found. And even assuming a few effective new hires, this would hardly make a dent in New York City’s overall public education problems.

It is a logical fallacy to attribute inferior student outcomes to poor individual teaching performance. An increasing crime rate is usually not the fault of bad policing by particular officers.

The broader idea, not generally talked about, is that the ability of school systems to fire with greater ease will either terrorize the rest of the nation’s teachers into teaching better or lead to a lot of average teachers on the unemployment lines. This raises the question of whom to fire. The answer, increasingly, appears to be those teachers whose students do worst on standardized tests. This, the argument goes, will create an objective, business-model standard by which to evaluate teachers, much as sales data in a car dealership will separate the stars from the Willie Lomans.

As the problems associated with converting student performance into business data are so broad and multifaceted, a new jargon has been invented to anesthetize policymakers and teachers alike: value-added teacher evaluations. Using opaque and complex formulas, this process promises to balance traditional models with new, data-driven truth. The fascination and enthusiasm with the value-added model among reformers is perfectly appropriate in its way. Public education in this country is and has always been persistently beset by fads and jargon—now it’s just the reformers adopting the tactics of the educational establishment—which is a good part of the reason public education is in its chronically poor state.

There are approximately 2.5 million elementary and secondary public school teachers in the United States, and another half-million in private schools—together, roughly 1 percent of the total population of the country and 1.7 percent of the total working-age population. Of the total population (including retirees) with at least a bachelor’s degree (the minimum requirement for a teacher), schoolteachers represent a remarkable 11 percent of the available employment pool. Where are all the additional highly qualified teachers to come from, after we’ve gotten rid of all the teachers with inadequate student assessment results?

Few “highly qualified teachers” (as defined by the U.S. Department of Education), much less teachers with actual skill, are beating down the doors to get into the nation’s most troubled school districts. You can rid yourself of teachers whose students produce poor standardized-test results, but you may have to replace them with the custodial staff.

Vol. 30, Issue 04

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