Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

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No surprise, again, but Thomas Kane, an economics professor from Harvard University who also directed the $45 million worth of Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is publicly writing in support of VAMs, again (redundancy intended). I just posted about one of his recent articles published on the website of the Brookings Institution titled “Do Value-Added Estimates Identify Causal Effects of Teachers and Schools?” after which I received another of his articles, this time published by the New York Daily News titled “Teachers Must Look in the Mirror.”

Embracing a fabled metaphor, while not to position teachers as the wicked queens or to position Kane as Snow White, let us ask ourselves the classic question:”Who is the fairest one of all?” as we critically review yet another fairytale authored by Harvard’s Kane. He has, after all, “carefully studied the best systems for rating teachers” (see other prior posts about Kane’s public perspectives on VAMs here and here).

In this piece, Kane continues to advance a series of phantasmal claims about the potentials of VAMs, this time in the state of New York where Governor Andrew Cuomo intends to take the state’s teacher evaluation system up to a system based 50% on teachers’ value-added, or 100% on value-added in cases where a teacher rated as “ineffective” in his/her value-added score can be rated as “ineffective” overall. Here,  value-added could be used to trump all else (see prior posts about this here and here).

According to Kane, Governor Cuomo “picked the right fight.” The state’s new system “will finally give schools the tools they need to manage and improve teaching.” Perhaps the magic mirror would agree with such a statement, but research would evidence it vain.

As I have noted prior, there is absolutely no evidence, thus far, indicating that such systems have any (in)formative use or value. These data are first and foremost designed for summative, or summary, purposes; they are not designed for formative use. Accordingly, the data that come from such systems — besides the data that come from the observational components still being built into these systems that have existed and been used for decades past — are not transparent, difficult to understand, and therefore challenging to use. Likewise, such data are not instructionally sensitive, and they are untimely in that test-based results typically come back to teachers well after their students have moved on to subsequent grade levels.

What about Kane’s claims against tenure: “The tenure process is the place to start. It’s the most important decision a principal makes. One poor decision can burden thousands of future students, parents, colleagues and supervisors.” This is quite an effect considering the typical teacher being held accountable using these new and improved teacher evaluation systems as based (in this case largely) on VAMs typically impacts only teachers at the elementary level who teach mathematics and reading/language arts. Even an elementary teacher with a career spanning 40 years with an average of 30 students per class would directly impact (or burden) 1,200 students, maximum. This is not to say this is inconsequential, but as consequential as Kane’s sensational numbers imply? What about the thousands of parents, colleagues, and supervisors also to be burdened by one poor decision? Fair and objective? This particular mirror thinks not.

Granted, I am not making any claims about tenure as I think all would agree that sometimes tenure can support, keeping with the metaphor, bad apples. Rather I take claim with the exaggerations, including also that “Traditionally, principals have used much too low a standard, promoting everyone but the very worst teachers.” We must all check our assumptions here about how we define “the very worst teachers” and how many of them really lurk in the shadows of America’s now not-so-enchanted forests. There is no evidence to support this claim, either, just conjecture.

As for the solution, “Under the new law, the length of time it will take to earn tenure will be lengthened from three to four years.” Yes, that arbitrary, one-year extension will certainly help… Likewise, tenure decisions will now be made better using classroom observations (the data that have, according to Kane in this piece, been used for years to make all of these aforementioned bad decisions) and our new fair and objective, test-based measures, which not accordingly to Kane, can only be used for about 30% of all teachers in America’s public schools. Nonetheless, “Student achievement gains [are to serve as] the bathroom scale, [and] classroom observations [are to serve] as the mirror.”

Kane continues, scripting, “Although the use of test scores has received all the attention, [one of] the most consequential change[s] in the law has been overlooked: One of a teacher’s observers must now be drawn from outside his or her school — someone whose only role is to comment on teaching.” Those from inside the school were only commenting on one’s beauty and fairness prior, I suppose, as “The fact that 96% of teachers were given the two highest ratings last year — being deemed either “effective” or “highly effective” — is a sure sign that principals have not been honest to date.”

All in all, perhaps somebody else should be taking a long hard “Look in the Mirror,” as this new law will likely do everything but “[open] the door to a renewed focus on instruction and excellence in teaching” despite the best efforts of “union leadership,” although I might add to Kane’s list many adorable little researchers who have also “carefully studied the best systems for rating teachers” and more or less agree on their intended and unintended results in…the end.

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One thought on “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

  1. I think I’ve decided that I’m really, really not fond of economics professors nor economists. They operate in such a false reality, yet their words/thoughts are treated as if they were coming from the next educational deity (see Hanushek, Chetty, etc.)

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