School & District Management

William Sanders, Pioneer of the Value-Added Model for Evaluating Teachers, Dies

By Madeline Will — March 22, 2017 2 min read
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William Sanders, the statistician and researcher who developed a controversial value-added system for evaluating teachers based on student growth, died on March 16. He was 74.

His work has been the cornerstone of the long-running policy debate about how best to measure teacher effectiveness. The value-added method uses statistical formulas to see how much “value” a teacher added to a student’s learning, as measured by the change in the student’s standardized-test scores each year. The model factors in the gains the student was expected to make based on past performance.

“Sanders stood for a hopeful view that teacher effectiveness dwarfs all other factors as a predictor of student academic growth,” his family wrote in his obituary. “His position challenged decades of assumptions that student family life, income, or ethnicity has more effect on student learning. Sanders believed, simply put, that educational influence matters and teachers matter most.”

Still, the method has been widely criticized by those who feel that the model doesn’t sufficiently control for student poverty or think that it’s unfair to be judged teachers on standardized test scores. Some critics worry that the value-added measures can be imprecise.

Sanders developed the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which rolled out in 2011-12 and has been the subject of several lawsuits brought by the state teachers’ union, which called the system arbitrary, flawed, and in violation of teachers’ constitutional rights. Still, the system has been replicated in several other states and cities .

In a statement, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called Sanders’ death a “loss to the education community.”

“During his career, Dr. Sanders made significant contributions to the conversation on how to distinguish our most effective educators, in terms of improving academic achievement,” she said. “We are grateful for his years of service working to provide teachers with clear feedback supported by data that ultimately improves outcomes for students across our state and the country.”

In 2000, Education Week Teacher profiled Sanders, saying that in another life, the “friendly and gracious” Southern scholar seems like “he might have been a railroad clerk or a small-town postmaster.” The lengthy, detailed profile explores Sanders’ belief that his system is “more fair, more realistic, and more reasonable” than any other teacher evaluation system—and his insistence that he didn’t want to get rid of weak teachers, but rather improve their practice. From the profile:

And Sanders has lots to say about the classroom and what makes for good instruction. Effective teachers, he says, "get excellent gains across the entire spectrum of kids in their classroom [because] they've got kids working at different paces and at different places." Ineffective teachers, on the other hand, "tend to focus on the lower-end kids. They may be sincere and conscientious, but they're holding back the others." Despite his claims that he is an agnostic on policy questions, Sanders argues, "It is imperative that we focus on bringing all our energy and effort to try to shrink the variability of teacher effectiveness, so that it doesn't make so much difference which classroom a child walks into."

His research found that three consecutive years of ineffective teachers can significantly hamper a child’s learning over the long run.

Sanders is survived by his wife, June Rivers Sanders, who was his research partner as well as a former teacher with a doctorate in K-12 administration.

“Bill and his wife June pursued their life’s work together, dedicated to serving America’s educators and students,” said a spokesman from the research firm SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., where Sanders later worked. “He was a kind, generous man who inspired us at SAS with his passion and optimism, and charmed us with his homespun wisdom.”

Sanders is also survived by his children, his stepsons, and his eight grandchildren. His family wrote in his obituary that his goal was to learn something new every day.

Photo provided by SAS Institute

William Sanders in Education Week:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.