Researchers of a brief released from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the primary research arm of the United States Department of Education (USDOE), recently set out to “shed light on the extent to which disadvantaged students have access to effective teaching, based on value-added measures [VAMs]” as per three recent IES studies that have since been published in peer-reviewed journals and that include in their analyses 17 total states.
Researchers found, overall, that: (1) disadvantaged students receive less-effective teaching and have less access to effective teachers on average, that’s worth about a four-week lack of achievement in reading and about a two-week lack of achievement in mathematics as per VAM-based estimates, and (2) students’ access to effective teaching varies across districts.
On point (1), this is something we have known for years, contrary to what the authors of this brief write (i.e., “there has been limited research on the extent to which disadvantaged students receive less effective teaching than other students.” They simply dismiss a plethora of studies because researchers did not use VAMs to evaluate “effective teaching.” Linda Darling-Hammond’s research, in particular, has been critically important in this area for decades. It is a fact that, on average, students in high-needs schools that disproportionally serve the needs of disadvantaged students have less access to teachers who have certain teacher-quality indicators (e.g., National Board Certification and advanced degrees/expertise in content-areas, although these things are argued not to matter in this brief). In addition, there are also higher teacher turnover rates in such schools, and oftentimes such schools become “dumping grounds” for teachers who cannot be terminated due to many of the tenure laws currently at focus and under fire across the nation. This is certainly a problem, as is disadvantaged students’ access to effective teachers. So, agreed!
On point (2), agreed again. Students’ access to effective teaching varies across districts. There is indeed a lot of variation in terms of teacher quality across districts, thanks largely to local (and historical) educational policies (e.g., district and school zoning, charter and magnet schools, open enrollment, vouchers and other choice policies promoting public school privatization), all of which continue to perpetuate these problems. No surprise really, here, either, as we have also known this for decades, thanks to research that has not been based solely on the use of VAMs but research by, for example, Jonathan Kozol, bell hooks, and Jean Anyon to name a few.
What is most relevant here, though, and in particular for readers of this blog, is that the authors of this brief used misinformed approaches when writing this brief and advancing their findings. That is, they used VAMs to examine the extent to which disadvantaged students receive “less effective teaching” by defining “less effective teaching” using only VAM estimates as the indicators of effectiveness, and as relatively compared to other teachers across the schools and districts in which they found that such grave disparities exist. All the while, not once did they mention how these disparities very likely biased the relative estimates on which they based their main findings.
Most importantly, they blindly agreed to a largely unchecked and largely false assumption that the teachers caused the relatively low growth in scores rather than the low growth being caused by the bias inherent in the VAMs being used to estimate the relative levels of “effective teaching” across teachers. This is the bias that across VAMs is still, it seems weekly, becoming more apparent and of increasing concern (see, for example, a recent post about a research study demonstrating this bias here).
This is also the same issue I detailed in a recent post titled, “Chicken or the Egg?” in which I deconstructed the “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question in the context of VAMs. This is becoming increasingly important as those using VAM-based data are using them to make causal claims, when only correlational (or in simpler terms relational) claims can and should be made. The fundamental question in this brief should have been, rather, “What is the real case of cause and consequence” when examining “effective teaching” in these studies across these states? True teacher effectiveness, or teacher effectiveness along with the bias inherent in and across VAMs given the relativistic comparisons on which VAM estimates are based…or both?!?
Interestingly enough, not once was “bias” even mentioned in either the brief or its accompanying technical appendix. It seems to these researchers, there ain’t no such thing. Hence, their claims are valid and should be interpreted as such.
That being said, we cannot continue to use VAM estimates (emphasis added) to support claims about bad teachers causing low achievement among disadvantaged students when VAM researchers increasingly evidence that these models cannot control for the disadvantages that disadvantaged students bring with them to the schoolhouse door. Until these models are bias-free (which is unlikely), never can claims be made that the teachers caused the growth (or lack thereof), or in this case more or less growth than other similar teachers with different sets of students non-randomly attending different districts and schools and non-randomly assigned into different classrooms with different teachers.
VAMs are biased by the very nature of the students and their disadvantages, both of which clearly contribute to the VAM estimates themselves.
It is also certainly worth mentioning that the research cited throughout this brief is not representative of the grander peer-reviewed research available in this area (e.g., research derived via Michelle Rhee’s “Students First”?!?). Likewise, having great familiarity with the authors of not only the three studies cited in this brief, but also the others cited “in support,” let’s just say their aforementioned sheer lack of attention to bias and what bias meant for the validity of their findings was (unfortunately) predictable.
As far as I’m concerned, the (small) differences they report in achievement might as well be real or true, but to claim that teachers caused the differences because of their effectiveness, or lack thereof, is certainly false and untrue.
Citation: Institute of Education Sciences. (2014, January). Do disadvantaged students get less effective teaching? Key findings from recent Institute of Education Sciences studies. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20144010/