AFT’s Randi Weingarten (Finally) Speaking Out Against VAMs

As just posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has (finally) expressed her full opposition against using value-added models (VAMs), the statistical measures of utmost interest on this blog, for teacher evaluation, accountability, and merit pay purposes.

I echo Diane’s sentiments that this is indeed “great news!” and that Weingarten should be saluted for her courage and insight, particularly as Weingarten has given up her previously held position, given the research evidence. She is now launching a campaign against VAMs and their (mis)uses.

As background, Randi wrote the foreword to the only academic book that has been released on VAMs to date — Value-Added Measures in Education — written by now Tulane Associate Professor of Economics, Douglas Harris. In addition, Weingarten unfortunately wrote the foreword in support of Harris’s overall (and, in my opinion, highly misguided and prematurely enthusiastic) stance on VAMs, writing things like Harris “presents a convincing argument that value-added’s imprecision need not be a deal breaker as long as we understand where it comes from and how to account for it when these measures are used in schools. We cannot expect any measures of teacher quality – value-added or others – to be perfect.” Unfortunately, Weingarten co-signed Harris’s stance that VAMs are “good enough” for their current uses and utilities, mainly riding on the fact that they are better than the other test-based accountability options used in the past. For more about Harris’s book and his overall position, read a commentary I wrote in Teachers College Record in review of his book and his “good enough” stance.

As per a recent post on politico.com, Weingarten’s new mantra is that “VAM is a sham.” This is “a notable shift for the AFT and its affiliates, which have previously ratified contracts and endorsed evaluation systems that rely on VAM. Weingarten tells Morning Education that she has always been leery of value-added ‘but we rolled up our sleeves, acted in good faith and tried to make it work. Now, she says, she’s disillusioned.”

“What changed her mind? Weingarten points to a standoff in Pittsburgh over the implementation of a VAM-based evaluation system the union had endorsed. She says the algorithms and cut scores used to rate teachers were arbitrary. And she found the process corrosive: The VAM score was just a number that didn’t show teachers their strengths or weaknesses or suggest ways to improve. Weingarten said the final straw was the news that the contractor calculating VAM scores for D.C. teachers made a typo in the algorithm, resulting in 44 teachers receiving incorrect scores — including one who was unjustly fired for poor performance.”

“What’s next? The AFT’s newly militant stance against VAM will likely affect contract negotiations in local districts, and the union also plans to lobby the Education Department.”

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