VAMboozled!: Learning from What Doesn’t Work in Teacher Evaluation
One of my doctoral students — Kevin Close — and I just had a study published in the practitioner journal Phi Delta Kappan that I wanted to share out with all of you, especially before the study is no longer open-access or free (see full study as currently available here). As the title indicates, the study is about how states, school districts, and schools can “Learn from What Doesn’t Work in Teacher Evaluation,” given an analysis that the two of us conducted of all documents pertaining to the four teacher evaluation and value-added model (VAM)-centered lawsuits in which I have been directly involved, and that I have also covered in this blog. These lawsuits include Lederman v. King in New York (see here), American Federation of Teachers et al. v. Public Education Department in New Mexico (see here), Houston Federation of Teachers v. Houston Independent School District in Texas (see here), and Trout v. Knox County Board of Education in Tennessee (see here).
Via this analysis we set out to comb through the legal documents to identify the strongest objections, as also recognized by the courts in these lawsuits, to VAMs as teacher measurement and accountability strategies. “The lessons to be learned from these cases are both important and timely” given that “[u]nder the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), local education leaders once again have authority to decide for themselves how to assess teachers’ work.”
The most pertinent and also common issues as per these cases were as follows:
(1) Inconsistencies in teachers’ VAM-based estimates from one year to the next that are sometimes “wildly different.” Across these lawsuits, issues with reliability were very evident, whereas teachers classified as “effective” one year were either theorized or demonstrated to have around a 25%-59% chance of being classified as “ineffective” the next year, or vice versa, with other permutations also possible. As per our profession’s Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, reliability should, rather, be observed whereby VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness are more or less consistent over time, from one year to the next, regardless of the type of students and perhaps subject areas that teachers teach.
(2) Bias in teachers’ VAM-based estimates were also of note, whereby documents suggested or evidenced that bias, or rather biased estimates of teachers’ actual effects does indeed exist (although this area was also of most contention and dispute). Specific to VAMs, since teachers are not randomly assigned the students they teach, whether their students are invariably more or less motivated, smart, knowledgeable, or capable can bias students’ test-based data, and teachers’ test-based data when aggregated. Court documents, although again not without counterarguments, suggested that VAM-based estimates are sometimes biased, especially when relatively homogeneous sets of students (i.e., English Language Learners (ELLs), gifted and special education students, free-or-reduced lunch eligible students) are non-randomly concentrated into schools, purposefully placed into classrooms, or both. Research suggests that this also sometimes happens regardless of the the sophistication of the statistical controls used to block said bias.
(3) The gaming mechanisms in play within teacher evaluation systems in which VAMs play a key role, or carry significant evaluative weight, were also of legal concern and dispute. That administrators sometimes inflate the observational ratings of their teachers whom they want to protect, while simultaneously offsetting the weight the VAMs sometimes carry was of note, as was the inverse. That administrators also sometimes lower teachers’ ratings to better align them with their “more objective” VAM counterparts were also at issue. “So argued the plaintiffs in the Houston and Tennessee lawsuits, for example. In those systems, school leaders appear to have given precedence to VAM scores, adjusting their classroom observations to match them. In both cases, administrators admitted to doing so, explaining that they sensed pressure to ensure that their ‘subjective’ classroom ratings were in sync with the VAM’s ‘objective’ scores.” Both sets of behavior distort the validity (or “truthfulness”) of any teacher evaluation system and are in violation of the same, aforementioned Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing that call for VAM scores and observation ratings to be kept separate. One indicator should never be adjusted to offset or to fit the other.
(4) Transparency, or the lack thereof, was also a common issue across cases. Transparency, which can be defined as the extent to which something is accessible and readily capable of being understood, pertains to whether VAM-based estimates are accessible and make sense to those at the receiving ends. “Not only should [teachers] have access to [their VAM-based] information for instructional purposes, but if they believe their evaluations to be unfair, they should be able to see all of the relevant data and calculations so that they can defend themselves.” In no case was this more legally pertinent than in Houston Federation of Teachers v. Houston Independent School District in Texas. Here, the presiding judge ruled that teachers did have “legitimate claims to see how their scores were calculated. Concealing this information, the judge ruled, violated teachers’ due process protections under the 14th Amendment (which holds that no state — or in this case organization — shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process). Given this precedent, it seems likely that teachers in other states and districts will demand transparency as well.”
In the main article (here) we also discuss what states are now doing to (hopefully) improve upon their teacher evaluation systems in terms of using multiple measures to help to evaluate teachers more holistically. We emphasize the (in)formative versus the summative and high-stakes functions of such systems, and allowing teachers to take ownership over such systems in their development and implementation. I will leave you all to read the full article (here) for these details.
In sum, though, when rethinking states’ teacher evaluation systems, especially given the new liberties afforded to states via the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), educators, education leaders, policymakers, and the like would do well to look to the past for guidance on what not to do — and what to do better. These legal cases can certainly inform such efforts.
Reference: Close, K., & Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2018). Learning from what doesn’t work in teacher evaluation. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(1), 15-19. Retrieved from http://www.kappanonline.org/learning-from-what-doesnt-work-in-teacher-evaluation/
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