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A Lesson For Policy Wonks

A Boston third-grade teacher gave Washington policy wonks a dose of cold reality recently at a press conference on teacher accountability.

The occasion was the release of a paper from the Center for American Progress about the use of so-called “value-added” measures to judge teachers.

The term refers to how much a student’s standardized test scores go up while that student is in a particular teacher’s class. Many “pay-for-performance” plans use value-added measures as a way to dole out bonuses for teachers whose students’ scores rise, and some include penalties for teachers whose students stagnate.

Raegen Miller, the author of the paper, laid out a number of reasons why school districts should use caution in using these measures for high-stakes decisions affecting a teacher’s career.

But when it was her turn to comment, Boston teacher Caitlin Hollister took the discussion in a different direction—how to improve instruction.

“I’ve been teaching at my school for five years and I’ve never once been evaluated,” she began. After my fourth month, I was given tenure.”

This year, she said, she has two boys who have poor “time-on-task” and she doesn’t need more data to know that’s limiting their learning. So last September, she asked her principal to come watch her and suggest ways she could do better with those boys. Two months later, it hasn’t happened, she reported.

Hollister told the audience that teachers want the kind of evaluation that helps them teach better. But there’s not much of that on offer.

NEA Teacher Quality Director Segun Eubanks said teachers are “fed up with the obsession with standardized tests.” It narrows the curriculum to the few subjects that are tested, and makes it harder for teachers to spend time developing students’ creativity and higher-order thinking, he said.

Miller said the use of “value-added” measures are meeting resistance from teachers because the term makes it sound like these measures show much more than they actually do. Test score gains only reflect part of the "value" that a student gains in class, and most subjects don't even have standardized test scores.

Big, high-stakes decisions like ending a teacher's career should never be based on a single measure, he said.

Miller proposed replacing the term “value-added” with something that sounds more modest. He suggested “context-adjusted achievement test effects.” That’s a mouthful, he conceded, but it has a pronounceable acronym: CAATs.

Eubanks pronounced himself in favor of the new term, but he said that when he tried it out at NEA headquarters, he encountered two sorts of reactions: Some people like it, but others say it wasn’t matter what term is used because “If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck—or a CAAT.”