Thanks to a colleague in Florida, I recently read an article about the “Problems of Teacher Measurement” published in 1917 in the *Journal of Educational Psychology
*by B. F. Pittenger. As mentioned, it’s always interesting to take a historical approach (hint here to policymakers), and in this case a historical vies via the perspective of an author on the same topic of interest to followers here through an article he wrote almost 100 years ago. Let’s see how things have changed, or more specifically, how things have not changed.

Then, “they” had the same goals we still have today, if this isn’t telling in and of itself. From 1917: “The current efforts of experimentallists in the field of teacher measurement are only attempts to extract from the consciousness of principals and supervisors these personal criteria of good teaching, and to assemble and condense them into a single objective schedule, thoroughly tested, by means of which every judge of teaching may make his [sic] estimates more accurate, and more consistent with those of other judges. There is nothing new about the entire movement except the attempt to objectify what already exists subjectively, and to unify and render universal what is now the scattered property of many men.”

Policymakers continue to invest entirely on an ideal known then also to be (possibly forever) false. From 1917: “There are those who believe that the movement toward teacher measurement is a monstrous innovation, which threatens the holiest traditions of the educational profession by putting a premium upon mechanical methodology…the phrase ‘teacher-measurement,’ itself, no doubt, is in part responsible for this misunderstanding, as it suggests a mathematical exactness of procedure which is clearly impossible in this field [emphasis added]. Teacher measurement will probably never become more than a carefully controlled process of estimating a teacher’s individual efficiency…[This is]…sufficiently convenient and euphonious, and has now been used widely enough, to warrant its continuation.”

As for the methods “issues” in 1917? “However sympathetic one may be with the general plan of devising schedules for teacher measurement, it is difficult to justify many of the methods by which these investigators have attacked the problem. For example, all of them appear to have set up as their goal the construction of a schedule which can be applied to any teacher, whether in the elementary or high school, and irrespective of the grade or subject in which his teaching is being done. “Teaching is teaching,” is the evident assumption, “and the same wherever found.” But it may reasonably be maintained that different qualities and methods, at least in part, are requisite…In so far as the criteria of good teaching are the same in these very diverse situations, it seems probable that the comparative importance to be attached to each must differ.” Sound familiar?

On the use of multiple measures, as currently in line with the current measurement standards of the profession, from 1917: “students of teacher measurement appear to have erred in that they have attempted too much. The writer is strongly of the opinion that, for the present at least, efforts to construct a schedule for teacher measurement should be confined to a single one of the three planes which have been enumerated. Doubtless in the end we shall want to know as much as possible about all three; and to combine in our final estimate of a teacher’s merit all attainable facts as to her equipment, her classroom procedure, and the results which she achieves. But at present we should do wisely to project our investigations upon one plane at a time, and to make each of these investigations as thorough as it is possible to make it. Later, when we know the nature and comparative value of the various items necessary to adequate judgment upon all planes, there will be time and opportunity for putting together the different schedules into one.” One-hundred years later…

On prior teachers’ effects: “we must keep constantly in mind the fact that the results which pupils achieve in any given subject are by no means the product of the labor of any single teacher. Earlier teachers, other contemporary teachers, and the environment external to the school, are all factors in determining pupil efficiency in any school subject. It has been urged that the influence of these complicating factors can be materially reduced by measuring only the change in pupil achievement which takes place under the guidance of a single teacher. But it must be remembered that this process only reduces these complications; it does not and cannot eliminate them.”

Finally, the supreme to be sought, then and now? “The plane of results (in the sense of changes wrought in pupils) would be the ideal plane upon which to build an estimate of a teacher’s individual efficiency, if it were possible (1) to measure all of the results of teaching, and (2) to pick out from the body of measured results any single teacher’s contribution. At present these desiderata are impossible to attain [emphasis added]…[but]…let us not make the mistake of assuming that the results that we can measure are the only results of teaching, or even that they are the most important part.”

Likewise, “no one teacher can be given the entire blame or credit for the doings of the pupils in her classroom…the ‘classroom process’ should be regarded as including the activities of both teachers and pupils.” In the end, “The promotion, discharge, or constructive criticism of teachers cannot be reduced to mathematical formulae. The proper function of a scorecard for teacher measurement is not to substitute such a formula for a supervisor’s personal judgment, but to aid him in discovering and assembling all the data upon which intelligent judgment should be based.”

Having over a century’s worth of research showing failure or foolishness hasn’t stopped the merit pay cheerleaders. I’m sure the VAM-lovers will continue along in their echo chamber, each proclaiming they have the magic statistical equation to solve all of education’s ills, which will also serve to clear out the teaching profession of all teachers.