VAMboozled!: More of Kane’s “Objective” Insights on Teacher Evaluation Measures

You might recall from a series of prior posts (see, for example, herehere, and here), the name of Thomas Kane — an economics professor from Harvard University who directed the $45 million worth of Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who also testified as an expert witness in two lawsuits (i.e., in New Mexico and Houston) opposite me (and in the case of Houston, also opposite Jesse Rothstein).

He, along with Andrew Bacher-Hicks (PhD Candidate at Harvard), Mark Chin (PhD Candidate at Harvard), and Douglas Staiger (Economics Professor of Dartmouth), just released yet another National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) “working paper” (i.e., not peer-reviewed, and in this case not internally reviewed by NBER for public consumption and use either) titled “An Evaluation of Bias in Three Measures of Teacher Quality: Value-Added, Classroom Observations, and Student Surveys.” I review this study here.

Using Kane’s MET data, they test whether 66 mathematics teachers’ performance measured (1) by using teachers’ student test achievement gains (i.e., calculated using value-added models (VAMs)), classroom observations, and student surveys, and (2) under naturally occurring (i.e., non-experimental) settings “predicts performance following random assignment of that teacher to a class of students” (p. 2). More specifically, researchers “observed a sample of fourth- and fifth-grade mathematics teachers and collected [these] measures…[under normal conditions, and then in]…the third year…randomly assigned participating teachers to classrooms within their schools and then again collected all three measures” (p. 3).

They concluded that “the test-based value-added measure—is a valid predictor of teacher impacts on student achievement following random assignment” (p. 28). This finding “is the latest in a series of studies” (p. 27) substantiating this not-surprising, as-oft-Kane-asserted finding, or as he might assert it, fact. I should note here that no other studies substantiating “the latest in a series of studies” (p. 27) claim are referenced or cited, but a quick review of the 31 total references included in this report include 16/31 (52%) references conducted by only econometricians (i.e., not statisticians or other educational researchers) on this general topic, of which 10/16 (63%) are not peer reviewed and of which 6/16 (38%) are either authored or co-authored by Kane (1/6 being published in a peer-reviewed journal). The other articles cited are about the measurements used, the geenral methods used in this study, and four other articles written on the topic not authored by econometricians. Needless to say, there is clearly a slant that is quite obvious in this piece, and unfortunately not surprising, but that had it gone through any respectable vetting process, this sh/would have been caught and addressed prior to this study’s release.

I must add that this reminds me of Kane’s New Mexico testimony (see here) where he, again, “stressed that numerous studies [emphasis added] show[ed] that teachers [also] make a big impact on student success.” He stated this on the stand while expressly contradicting the findings of the American Statistical Association (ASA). While testifying otherwise, and again, he also only referenced (non-representative) studies in his (or rather defendants’ support) authored by primarily him (e.g, as per his MET studies) and some of his other econometric friends (e.g. Raj ChettyEric HanushekDoug Staiger) as also cited within this piece here. This was also a concern registered by the court, in terms of whether Kane’s expertise was that of a generalist (i.e., competent across multi-disciplinary studies conducted on the matter) or a “selectivist” (i.e., biased in terms of his prejudice against, or rather selectivity of certain studies for confirmation, inclusion, or acknowledgment). This is also certainly relevant, and should be taken into consideration here.

Otherwise, in this study the authors also found that the Mathematical Quality of Instruction (MQI) observational measure (one of two observational measures they used in this study, with the other one being the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS)) was a valid predictor of teachers’ classroom observations following random assignment. The MQI also, did “not seem to be biased by the unmeasured characteristics of students [a] teacher typically teaches” (p. 28). This also expressly contradicts what is now an emerging set of studies evidencing the contrary, also not cited in this particular piece (see, for example, herehere, and here), some of which were also conducted using Kane’s MET data (see, for example, here and here).

Finally, authors’ evidence on the predictive validity of student surveys was inconclusive.

Needless to say…

Citation: Bacher-Hicks, A., Chin, M. J., Kane, T. J., & Staiger, D. O. (2017). An evaluation of bias in three measures of teacher quality: Value-added, classroom observations, and student surveys. Cambridge, MA: ational Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Retrieved from

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Audrey Amrein-Beardsley

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a former middle- and high-school mathematics teacher, received her Ph.D. in 2002 from Arizona State University in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with an emphasis on Research Methods. Awarded tenure in 2010 as an ASU Presidential Exemplar, she is currently an Associate Professor in the...