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VAMboozled!: Vergara v. California: Concerns Beyond Teachers

Ireceived this “public letter” via email and felt compelled to share it with you all. It is written by Ed Johnson, “Advocate for Quality in Public Education” and devotee of W. Edwards Deming. It is about the quite honestly shameful testimony of Harvard Economics Professor Raj Chetty (the source of prior posts here and here), his testimony’s impact on the Vergara v. California decision last week (see two recent posts about this court decision here and here), and the deleterious implications of the ways that Chetty and those whom he advises (including Obama’s key leaders) think about educational measurement — implications that unfortunately span well beyond the teachers at the center of what is now so many similar VAM-based measurement systems.

June 17, 2014

Thanks mainly to Raj Chetty’s testimony, corporate school reformers won, or bought, the Vergara v. California case.  Now, in consequence, there should be grave concern.  California Superior Court’s ruling and Chetty’s cheerful and gleeful testimony offer insight into the kind of intelligence-without-wisdom that can only lead to hastening the demise of democratic ideals along with the rise of plutocratic ideals and attendant morally and ethically corrupt and corrupting ways of social life legitimized in public law.  It is worth spending nearly two hours to watch and listen to Chetty’s testimony, so one may disallow oneself ever being able to claim, as some in Germany once claimed, “I didn’t know.”  Be sure to listen to Chetty explain President Obama’s and the White House’s involvement.

Chetty based his testimony on having posed and answered for himself the question: “Are teachers’ impacts on students’ test scores (“value-added”) a good measure of their quality?”  He testified that his research findings brought him to answer the question in the affirmative.  As if nothing much beyond test scores matter, Chetty concluded that teachers’ impact on students’ test scores are a good measure of the quality of students’ teachers.  Now just think about that for a minute and what it means and the potential precedent it holds for the future.

Chetty applied economic reasoning to “big data” sets of students’ test scores and relatable other kinds of data to, in effect, contrive little more than a method for distributing teachers over the mythical bell curve.  Bottom-line result?  “Déjà vu all over again” – that is, teachers ranked.  The five percent or so of teachers forced into the head of the bell curve are deemed, arguably, highly valuable teachers.  Similarly, the five percent or so of teachers forced into the tail of the bell curve are deemed, arguably, non-valuable teachers.  Then Chetty intimated that the teachers ranked by his method establish the justification to fire the non-valuable teachers among them.  And the quicker that is done, the better for the students.  But, of course, “the quicker, the better” can only be done if teachers are disallowed tenure – that is, if teachers are allowed no rights to due process.

Now, the rub is, why would anyone today believe Chetty’s magical “value-added” genie of a measure will still be in its bottle in the future?  Why would anyone believe corporatists will never apply Vergara v. California to employees?  Why would anyone believe our government will never back Vergara v. California to be applied beyond public school teachers to include ever more citizens?  Why would anyone believe “teachers” will never be generalized to “people” at the behest by plutocrats’ desires to get rid of non-valuable people the quicker, the better?  Why would anyone believe eugenics will never be embraced, again?

Unlike Chetty’s, the works, teachings, and philosophy of W. Edwards Deming (and similar others) are morally, ethically and, yes, economically grounded in the aim to continually improve the quality of life for everyone.  For example, Deming once asked, as I recall it, this powerful, and no doubt to some, unsettling question: “Even if you could rank people with accuracy, would you do it?”

In comparison to Chetty’s economic-only reasoning, Deming offers simple, profound wisdom that even elementary school children can be taught hence learn:

“Let X be the contribution of some individual, (YX) the effect of the system on his performance.  Then suppose that we have some number for his apparent performance, such as eight mistakes during the year, or sales of $8,000,000.

“Then, X + (YX) = 8.

“We need X.  Unfortunately, there are two unknowns and only one equation.  Johnny in the sixth grade knows that no one can solve this equation for X.  Yet people that use the merit system think that they are solving it for X.  They ignore the other term (YX), which is predominant.

“There is another factor to take into account, the Pygmalion effect.  Rated high at the start, anyone stays high.  Rated low at the start, he stays low. 

“Ranking creates competition between people, salesmen, teams, divisions.  It demoralizes employees.

“Ranking comes from failure to understand variation from common causes.”

–W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (pp. 25-26). Kindle Edition.

Raj Chetty’s value-added measure (VAM) contrivance simply invites staying stuck in the status quo of regressive and mechanistic ways of thinking that try to reduce life’s complexity to simplistic algorithms and scripts.  Instead, the country could be progressing, provided it had leaders that held a stronger adherence to democratic ideals than to plutocratic ideals, and that held a more just, moral, and ethical social systemic world view (see Ackoff, 11/1993).

Frankly, where are the words with which to express deeply felt sorrow and revulsion with Raj Chetty’s VAM, California Superior Court’s ruling, and Obama’s involvement?  How ironic that the country’s first self-proclaimed “African American” President serves a chief facilitator of attacks on public education.

Ed Johnson

Advocate for Quality in Public Education

“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.”
Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 – c. 323 BCE)

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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 Educati...