Playing Fair: Factors that Influence VAM for Special Education Teachers

As you all know, value-added models (VAMs) are intended to measure a teacher’s effectiveness. By comparing students’ learning and the value that educators add, VAMs attempt to isolate the teacher’s impact on student achievement. VAMs focus on individual student progress from one testing period to the next, sometimes without considering past learning, peer influence, family environment or individual ability, depending on the model.

Teachers, administrators and experts have debated VAM reliability and validity, but not often mentioned is the controversy regarding the use of VAMs for teachers of special education students. Why is this so controversial? Because students with disabilities are often educated in general education classrooms, but generally score lower on standardized tests – tests that they often should not be taking in the first place. Accordingly, holding teachers of special education students accountable for their performance is uniquely problematic. For example, many special education students are in mainstream classrooms, with co-teaching provided by both special and general education teachers; hence, special education programs can present challenges to VAMs that are meant to measure straightforward progress.

Co-teaching Complexities

Research like “Co-Teaching: An Illustration of the Complexity of Collaboration in Special Education” outlines some of the specific challenges that teachers of special education can face when co-teaching is involved. But essentially, co-teaching is a partnership between a general and a special education teacher, who jointly instruct a group of students, including those with special needs and disabilities. The intent is to provide special education students with access to the general curriculum while receiving more specialized instruction to support their learning.

Accordingly, collaboration is key to successful co-teaching. Teams that demonstrate lower levels of collaboration tend to struggle more, while successful co-teaching teams share their expertise to motivate students. However, special education teachers often report differences in teaching styles that lead to conflict; they often feel regulated to the role of classroom assistant, rather than full teaching partner. This also has implications for VAMs.

For example, student outcomes from co-teaching vary. A 2002 study by Rea, McLaughlin and Walther-Thomas found that students with learning disabilities in co-taught classes had better attendance and report card grades, but no better performance on standardized tests. Another report showed that test scores for students with and without disabilities were not affected by co-teaching (Idol, 2006).

A 2014 study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching points out another issue that can make co-teaching more difficult in a special education settings; it can be difficult to determine value-added because it can be hard to separate such teachers’ contributions. Authors also assert that calculating value-added would be more accurate if the models used more detailed data about disability status, services rendered, and past and present accommodations made, but many states do not collect these data (Buzick, 2014), and even if they did there is no real level of certainty that this would work.

Likewise, inclusion brings special education students into the general classroom, eliminating boundaries between special education students and general education peers. However, special education teachers often voice opposition to general education inclusion as it relates to VAMs.

According to “Value-Added Modeling: Challenges for Measuring Special Education Teacher Quality” (Lawson, 2014) some of the specific challenges cited include:

  • When students with disabilities spend the majority of their day in general education classrooms, special education teacher effectiveness is distorted.
  • Quality special education instruction can be hindered by poor general education instruction.
  • Students may be pulled out of class for additional services, which makes it difficult to maintain progress and pace.
  • Multiple teachers often provide instruction to special education students, so each teacher’s impact is difficult to assess.
  • When special education teachers assist general education classrooms, their impact is not measured by VAMs.

And along with the complexities involved with teaching students with disabilities, special education teachers also deal with a number of constraints that impact instructional time and affect VAMs. Special education teachers also deal with more paperwork, including Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that take time to write and review. In addition, they must handle extensive curriculum and lesson planning, manage parent communication, keep up with special education laws and coordinate with general education teachers. While their priority may be to fully support each student’s learning and achievement, it’s not always possible. In addition, not everything special education teachers do can be appropriately captured using tests.

These are but a few reasons that special education teachers should question the fairness of VAMs.

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This is a guest post from Umari Osgood who works at Bisk Education and writes on behalf of University of St. Thomas online programs.

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