Special Issue of “Educational Researcher” (Paper #6 of 9): VAMs as Tools for “Egg-Crate” Schools

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Recall that the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher (ER) – published a “Special Issue” including nine articles examining value-added measures (VAMs). I have reviewed the next of nine articles (#6 of 9), which is actually an essay here, titled “Will VAMS Reinforce the Walls of the Egg-Crate School?” This essay is authored by Susan Moore Johnson – Professor of Education at Harvard and somebody who I in the past I had the privilege of interviewing as an esteemed member of the National Academy of Education (see interviews here and here).

In this article, Moore Johnson argues that when policymakers use VAMs to evaluate, reward, or dismiss teachers, they may be perpetuating an egg-crate model, which is (referencing Tyack (1974) and Lortie (1975)) a metaphor for the compartmentalized school structure in which teachers (and students) work, most often in isolation. This model ultimately undermines the efforts of all involved in the work of schools to build capacity school wide, and to excel as a school given educators’ individual and collective efforts.

Contrary to the primary logic supporting VAM use, however, “teachers are not inherently effective or ineffective” on their own. Rather, their collective effectiveness is related to their professional development that may be stunted when they work alone, “without the benefit of ongoing collegial influence” (p. 119). VAMs then, and unfortunately, can cause teachers and administrators to (hyper)focus “on identifying, assigning, and rewarding or penalizing individual [emphasis added] teachers for their effectiveness in raising students’ test scores [which] depends primarily on the strengths of individual teachers” (p. 119). What comes along with this, then, are a series of interrelated egg-crate behaviors including, but not limited to, increased competition, lack of collaboration, increased independence versus interdependence, and the like, all of which can lead to decreased morale and decreased effectiveness in effect.

Inversely, students are much “better served when human resources are deliberately organized to draw on the strengths of all teachers on behalf of all students, rather than having students subjected to the luck of the draw in their classroom assignment[s]” (p. 119). Likewise, “changing the context in which teachers work could have important benefits for students throughout the school, whereas changing individual teachers without changing the context [as per VAMs] might not [work nearly as well] (Lohr, 2012)” (p. 120). Teachers learning from their peers, working in teams, teaching in teams, co-planning, collaborating, learning via mentoring by more experienced teachers, learning by mentoring, and the like should be much more valued, as warranted via the research, yet they are not valued given the very nature of VAM use.

Hence, there are also unintended consequences that can also come along with the (hyper)use of individual-level VAMs. These include, but are not limited to: (1) Teachers who are more likely to “literally or figuratively ‘close their classroom door’ and revert to working alone…[This]…affect[s] current collaboration and shared responsibility for school improvement, thus reinforcing the walls of the egg-crate school” (p. 120); (2) Due to bias, or that teachers might be unfairly evaluated given the types of students non-randomly assigned into their classrooms, teachers might avoid teaching high-needs students if teachers perceive themselves to be “at greater risk” of teaching students they cannot grow; (3) This can perpetuate isolative behaviors, as well as behaviors that encourage teachers to protect themselves first, and above all else; (4) “Therefore, heavy reliance on VAMS may lead effective teachers in high-need subjects and schools to seek safer assignments, where they can avoid the risk of low VAMS scores[; (5) M]eanwhile, some of the most challenging teaching assignments would remain difficult to fill and likely be subject to repeated turnover, bringing steep costs for students” (p. 120); While (6) “using VAMS to determine a substantial part of the teacher’s evaluation or pay [also] threatens to sidetrack the teachers’ collaboration and redirect the effective teacher’s attention to the students on his or her roster” (p. 120-121) versus students, for example, on other teachers’ rosters who might also benefit from other teachers’ content area or other expertise. Likewise (7) “Using VAMS to make high-stakes decisions about teachers also may have the unintended effect of driving skillful and committed teachers away from the schools that need them most and, in the extreme, causing them to leave the profession” in the end (p. 121).

I should add, though, and in all fairness given the Review of Paper #3 – on VAMs’ potentials here, many of these aforementioned assertions are somewhat hypothetical in the sense that they are based on the grander literature surrounding teachers’ working conditions, versus the direct, unintended effects of VAMs, given no research yet exists to examine the above, or other unintended effects, empirically. “There is as yet no evidence that the intensified use of VAMS interferes with collaborative, reciprocal work among teachers and principals or sets back efforts to move beyond the traditional egg-crate structure. However, the fact that we lack evidence about the organizational consequences of using VAMS does not mean that such consequences do not exist” (p. 123).

The bottom line is that we do not want to prevent the school organization from becoming “greater than the sum of its parts…[so that]…the social capital that transforms human capital through collegial activities in schools [might increase] the school’s overall instructional capacity and, arguably, its success” (p. 118). Hence, as Moore Johnson argues, we must adjust the focus “from the individual back to the organization, from the teacher to the school” (p. 118), and from the egg-crate back to a much more holistic and realistic model capturing what it means to be an effective school, and what it means to be an effective teacher as an educational professional within one. “[A] school would do better to invest in promoting collaboration, learning, and professional accountability among teachers and administrators than to rely on VAMS scores in an effort to reward or penalize a relatively small number of teachers” (p. 122).

*****

If interested, see the Review of Article #1 – the introduction to the special issue here; see the Review of Article #2 – on VAMs’ measurement errors, issues with retroactive revisions, and (more) problems with using standardized tests in VAMs here; see the Review of Article #3 – on VAMs’ potentials here; see the Review of Article #4 – on observational systems’ potentials here; and see the Review of Article #5 – on teachers’ perceptions of observations and student growth here.

Article #6 Reference: Moore Johnson, S. (2015). Will VAMS reinforce the walls of the egg-crate school? Educational Researcher, 44(2), 117-126. doi:10.3102/0013189X15573351

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