Brookings Institute Paper on VAMs and Their More Important Observational Counterparts

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A paper recently released by the Brookings Institute (click here to read the paper in full) has “added” some “value” to our thinking about the use of observations in the teacher evaluation systems of topic here, and most all educational policy circles these days.

Researchers, as situated in the federal context surrounding these systems (including more than $4 billion now released to 19 states via Race to the Top and now 43 NCLB waivers also granted), examined the observational systems, rather than the VAMs themselves, as these observational systems typically accompany the VAM components in these (oft-high-stakes) systems.

Researchers found that the observational components of these systems certainly “add” more “value” than their VAM counterparts. This is true largely because, as researchers found in their analyses, only 22% of teachers were VAM-eligible (which is significantly lower than others’ estimates that usually hang around 30%). In this case, observational systems were the only real “hard data” available for the other 78% of teachers across school sites. In addition, researchers found (although we have known this prior) that “classroom observations have the potential of providing formative feedback to teachers that [theoretically] helps them improve their practice [more than VAMs]…[because] feedback from [VAMs]…is often too delayed and vague to produce improvement in teaching.”

Researchers do note, however, that “improvements are needed” if such observational systems are to carry the weight for which they are currently being tasked, again provided the above and their findings below:

  1. Observational biases also exist, as per their research, whereas teachers who are non-randomly assigned students who enter their classrooms with higher levels of prior achievement tend to get higher observational scores than teachers non-randomly assigned students entering their classrooms with lower levels of prior achievement;
  2. Related, districts “do not have processes in place to address the possible biases in observational scores,” not to mention the VAM scores with which they are most often combined across contemporary systems. While authors suggest that statistical adjustments be made, I’m not certain I agree with this for the same research-based reasons I don’t agree with this approach with VAMs — no matter how sophisticated the statistics they do not work to effectively control for such bias;
  3. “The reliability of both value-added measures and demographic-adjusted teacher evaluation scores is dependent on sample size, such that these measures will be less reliable and valid when calculated in small districts than in large districts.” While authors recommend that states also control for this statistically, I would default to reality whereas districts interpreting and using these data should certainly keep this in mind, especially if they are set to make high-stakes decisions as based on these, yet another set of still faulty data;
  4. “Observations conducted by outside observers are more valid than observations conducted by school administrators. At least one observation of a teacher each year should conducted by a trained observer from outside the teacher’s school who does not have substantial prior knowledge of the teacher being observed.” On this, I would agree, but I would still recommend observers either represent or fully understand the full context in which teachers are to be observed before passing “more objective” judgments about them;
  5. And finally, their best recommendation…wait for it…that “[t]he inclusion of a school value-added component in teachers’ evaluation scores negatively impacts good teachers in bad schools and positively impacts bad teachers in good schools. This measure should be eliminated or reduced to a low weight in teacher evaluation programs.”

Citation: Whitehurst, G. J., Chingos, M. M., & Lindquist, K. M. (2014). Evaluating teachers with classroom observations: Lessons learned in four districts. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Evaluating-Teachers-with-Classroom-Observations.pdf

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