A New Book about VAMs “On Trial”

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I recently heard about a new book that was written by Mark Paige — J.D. and Ph.D., assistant professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and a former school law attorney — and published by Rowman & Littlefield. The book is about, as per the secondary part of its title “Understanding Value-Added Models [VAMs] in the Law of Teacher Evaluation.” See more on this book, including information about how to purchase it, for those of you who might be interested in reading more, here, and also via Amazon here.

Clearly, this book is to prove very relevant given the ongoing court cases across the country (see a prior post on these cases here) regarding teachers and the systems being used to evaluate them when especially (or extremely) reliant upon VAM-based estimates for consequential decision-making purposes (e.g., teacher tenure, pay, and termination). While I have not yet read the book, I just ordered my copy the other day. I suggest you do the same, again, should you be interested in further or better understanding the federal and state law pertinent to these cases.

Notwithstanding, I also requested that the author of this book — Mark Paige — write a guest post so that you too could find out more. Here is what he wrote:

Many of us have been following VAMs in legal circles. Several courts have faced the issue of VAMs as they relate to employment law matters. These cases have tested a chief selling point (pardon [or underscore] the business reference) of VAMs: that they will effectuate, for example, teacher termination with greater ease because nobody besides the advanced statisticians and econometricians can argue with their numbers derived. In other words, if a teacher’s VAM rating is bad, then the teacher must be bad. It’s to be as simple as that. How can a court deny that, reality?

Of course, as we [should] already know, VAMs are anything but certain. Bluntly stated: VAMs are a statistical “hot mess.” The American Statistical Association, among many others, warned in no uncertain terms that VAMs cannot – and should not – be trusted to make significant employment decisions. Of course, that has not stopped many policymakers from a full-throated adoption of their use in employment and evaluation decisions. Talk about hubris.

Accordingly, I recently completed this book, again, that focuses squarely at the intersection of VAMs and the law. Its full title is “Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value-Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation” Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Again, I provide a direct link to the book along with its description here.

To offer a bit of a sneak preview, thought, I draw many conclusions throughout the book, but one of two important take-aways is this: VAMs may actually complicate the effectuation of a teacher’s termination. Here’s one way: because VAMs are so statistically infirm, they invite plaintiff-side attorneys to attack any underlying negative decision based on these models. See, for example, Sheri Lederman’s recent New York State Supreme Court’s decision, here. [See also a related post in this blog here].

In other words, the evidence upon which districts or states rely to make significant decisions is untrustworthy (or arbitrary) and, therefore, so is any decision as based, even if in part, on VAMs. Thus, VAMs may actually strengthen a teacher’s case. This, of course, is quite apart from the fact that VAM use results in firing good teachers based on poor information, thereby contributing to the teacher shortages and lower morale (among many other parades of horribles) being reported across the nation, and now more than likely ever.

The second important take-away is this, especially given followers of this blog include many educators and administrators facing a barrage of criticisms that only “de-professionalize” them: Courts have, over time, consistently deferred to the professional judgment of administrators (and their assessment of effective teaching). The members of that august institution – the judiciary – actually believe that educators know best about teaching, and that years of accumulated experience and knowledge have actual and also court-relevant value. That may come as a startling revelation to those who consistently diminish the education profession, or those who at least feel like they and their efforts are consistently being diminished.

To be sure, the system of educator evaluation is not perfect. Our schools continue to struggle to offer equal and equitable educational opportunities to all students, especially those in the nation’s highest needs schools. But what this book ultimately concludes is that the continued use of VAMs will not, hu-hum, add any value to these efforts.

To reach author Mark Paige via email, please contact him at mpaige@umassd.edu. To reach him via Twitter: @mpaigelaw

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2 thoughts on “A New Book about VAMs “On Trial”

  1. As a civil rights litigator w/ a special emphasis in systemic educational civil rights, I believe that courts are probably more cynical in their approach than we would think. So, depending on the make-up of the court and the parties in the case, they may defer to the educational judgment of educators or they may defer to the judgment of policymakers. As we know all too well, those judgments can often conflict. We see this in Horne v. Flores where J. Alito stated– in contradiction to the substantial research and the judgment of educators– that immersion models are better for English Learners than bilingual models; in the recent Texas Taxpayer v. Morath case decided by the Texas Supreme Court, the Court reversed an adequacy ruling in favor of at-risk school children despite an incredible record showing the lack of high quality preK, higher class sizes, insufficient before- and afterschool tutoring etc., all necessary opportunities supported by robust testimony from school teachers, superintendents and researchers; and only rebutted by amicus briefs filed by rightwing think-tanks like the Goldwater Inst and witnesses like Hanushek who were annihilated on cross to reach the conclusion that many doesn’the matter much in public ed. So in cases like these, they don’t defer to the judgment of educators, but rather, policymakers. I know there are deseg cases where courts then defer to the judgment of local education leaders but again, that’s a different type of case.

    • David,

      Your thoughts are appreciated. As you note, the context matters. The discussion of the book relates to employment litigation in schools. In that context, courts do not act as super human resource departments.

      That’s been my experience as a school law attorney representing school districts in labor and employment matters (prior to entering the academic world). Yet, as I note in the book, school administrators now must (in many states) account for statistical models of VAMs in high-stakes decision and, in turn, so must courts. But, in the past, courts have been satisfied with the professional judgments of educators regarding teacher performance and what constitutes teacher quality, at least as it related to employment decisions based on performance.

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