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President’s Viewpoint

No More Reform Fads


Photo: NEA/Scott Iskowitz

Isn’t it time we quit fads in education and went after what works? Education reform fashionistas don’t think so. They’ve embraced the glossy new fad of “value-added” systems for measuring teacher performance as the answer to school improvement. Based on value-added statistical models, standardized test scores are used to track the growth of individual students as they progress through the grades and see how much “value” a teacher has added.

Value-added teacher rankings appeal to many people—notably self-proclaimed reformers and billionaire philanthropists—because they promise to remove the uncertainty from the complex process of teacher evaluation. But what these fad reformers fail to see is the value-added system’s potential to do more harm than good.

A recent study prepared for the Department of Education shows that these systems tend to be wrong 35 percent of the time evaluating a teacher after one year, and still wrong 25 percent of the time after three years. It’s fundamentally wrong to end someone’s career—or decide pay and promotion—based on a statistical model that’s incorrect one-quarter to one-third of the time. To paraphrase Bruce Baker, an economist at Rutgers University, would you buy a car if the salesman assured you that it would break down only once every five times you drove it?

 Value-Added Measures

New research calls into question the validity of value-added measures. In January a leading economist warned that a Gates Foundation study supporting value-added teacher evaluation was deeply flawed. Jesse Rothstein, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor and a former senior economist for the Council of Economic Advisers, found the report’s conclusions were contradicted by the study’s own data.

Standardized test scores are best used as a tool to help teachers become more effective by indicating which students are struggling. In fact, because we know test scores can be useful in that way, some NEA affiliates have adopted evaluation plans that include value-added scores as one of several elements in performance reviews. We all agree, however, that they should not be the sole or predominant measure as it gives an incomplete picture of teacher effectiveness.

To separate the fads from worthwhile ideas, policymakers must look beyond the get-tough rhetoric to science-based research and proven practice. If our goal is to ensure effective teaching, we can’t wait until teachers walk into the classroom. We should raise the bar for entry into the profession and require better preparation on the front end, and then provide high-quality mentoring to help new teachers succeed in the job.

This is what they do in Finland, one of the world’s top-performing countries educationally. There’s no raging debate about value-added evaluation systems there because the bar is set high for teacher candidates. They are recruited from among top high school students, earn master’s degrees, and prove their teaching skills before being hired. And they are respected professionals and union members. For once, that’s a fad I can embrace: follow the leader!

President Dennis Van Roekel


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