The New York Times on “The Little Known Statistician” Who Passed

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As many of you may recall, I wrote a post last March about the passing of William L. Sanders at age 74. Sanders developed the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) — the value-added model (VAM) on which I have conducted most of my research (see, for example, here and here) and the VAM at the core of most of the teacher evaluation lawsuits in which I have been (or still am) engaged (see here, here, and here).

Over the weekend, though, The New York Times released a similar piece about Sanders’s passing, titled “The Little-Known Statistician Who Taught Us to Measure Teachers.” Because I had multiple colleagues and blog followers email me (or email me about) this article, I thought I would share it out with all of you, with some additional comments, of course, but also given the comments I already made in my prior post here.

First, I will start by saying that the title of this article is misleading in that what this “little-known” statistician contributed to the field of education was hardly “little” in terms of its size and impact. Rather, Sanders and his associates at SAS Institute Inc. greatly influenced our nation in terms of the last decade of our nation’s educational policies, as largely bent on high-stakes teacher accountability for educational reform. This occurred in large part due to Sanders’s (and others’) lobbying efforts when the federal government ultimately choose to incentivize and de facto require that all states hold their teachers accountable for their value-added, or lack thereof, while attaching high-stakes consequences (e.g., teacher termination) to teachers’ value-added estimates. This, of course, was to ensure educational reform. This occurred at the federal level, as we all likely know, primarily via Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind Waivers essentially forced upon states when states had to adopt VAMs (or growth models) to also reform their teachers, and subsequently their schools, in order to continue to receive the federal funds upon which all states still rely.

It should be noted, though, that we as a nation have been relying upon similar high-stakes educational policies since the late 1970s (i.e., for now over 35 years); however, we have literally no research evidence that these high-stakes accountability policies have yielded any of their intended effects, as still perpetually conceptualized (see, for example, Nevada’s recent legislative ruling here) and as still advanced via large- and small-scale educational policies (e.g., we are still A Nation At Risk in terms of our global competitiveness). Yet, we continue to rely on the logic in support of such “carrot and stick” educational policies, even with this last decade’s teacher- versus student-level “spin.” We as a nation could really not be more ahistorical in terms of our educational policies in this regard.

Regardless, Sanders contributed to all of this at the federal level (that also trickled down to the state level) while also actively selling his VAM to state governments as well as local school districts (i.e., including the Houston Independent School District in which teacher plaintiffs just won a recent court ruling against the Sanders value-added system here), and Sanders did this using sets of (seriously) false marketing claims (e.g., purchasing and using the EVAAS will help “clear [a] path to achieving the US goal of leading the world in college completion by the year 2020”). To see two empirical articles about the claims made to sell Sanders’s EVAAS system, the research non-existent in support of each of the claims, and the realities of those at the receiving ends of this system (i.e., teachers) as per their experiences with each of the claims, see here and here.

Hence, to assert that what this “little known” statistician contributed to education was trivial or inconsequential is entirely false. Thankfully, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) the federal government came around, in at least some ways. While not yet acknowledging how holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores, while ideal, simply does not work (see the “Top Ten” reasons why this does not work here), at least the federal government has given back to the states the authority to devise, hopefully, some more research-informed educational policies in these regards (I know….).

Nonetheless, may he rest in peace (see also here), perhaps also knowing that his forever stance of “[making] no apologies for the fact that his methods were too complex for most of the teachers whose jobs depended on them to understand,” just landed his EVAAS in serious jeopardy in court in Houston (see here) given this stance was just ruled as contributing to the violation of teachers’ Fourteenth Amendment rights (i.e., no state or in this case organization shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process [emphasis added]).

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