The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why Value Added is No Magical Answer

There is a lot of talk about value added in the education world these days, particularly when it comes to performance based pay. I recently read an editorial on value added by an education blogger named Ben Johnson. You really should read the article first to understand my comments here.
"Why Performance Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense"

For those of you who are inevitably will not click the link and read the whole blog, it can best be summed up with this comment he makes towards the end:
"It wasn't until recently that I understood that the real concern about performance-based pay was not about the money at all. It is about performance of the teacher. Performance is shown when each individual student's progress is connected directly to his or her particular teacher or set of teachers. Based on how much the student learned, as demonstrated by the pre- and post- tests, a teacher will be assigned a value-added score. Teachers won't be able to blame the prior school-year teacher, nor the parents, nor society as some have done. If the score is low, it is either the kids are stupid, or the teacher is ineffective. We know that kids are not stupid, so..."

Well, it sounds good, right?  But it is not. There are so many things not factored into value added. I know that at the heart, this thinking is based in the idea that kids can learn and are not stupid, but this actually sort of does students an injustice. First of all, it devalues their creativity. It devalues the ways that they are smart that tests cannot show. If you asked kids if they wanted to get a grade based on what they learned through this pre-test post-test method, I bet they would say that this is unfair.  Especially because, as I have experienced, the only time-efficient way to do this is multiple choice tests, it misses several things. You cannot test if a student has become a better writer through a multiple choice test. You have to read essays. You might say, okay, give a pre-test essay and a post-test essay, right? But who is going to grade those? In addition, that is faulted in the fact that a student might be a terribly narrative writer, and only slightly improve that, but the student may have learned to write persuasively for the first time. Unless you gave an essay test, both pre and post, in every different mode of writing (expository, persuasive, narrative, reflective, literary, etc.) that is taught throughout the school year, then you couldn't really see the true value added when it comes to writing. And that type of testing is ridiculous and not effective, partially because of the very nature of good writing. If the student has learned to be a good writer, then the student has learned that writing is a process and the student now needs more than an in-class essay test to produce their best work. Considering that writing is one of the most valuable skills any student must learn, it seems rather frustrating to me that value added, simply by nature of being based on test, cannot truly assess the value the teacher has added to the student as a writer.

In addition, what about things like music? A test cannot determine the value that a teacher has added to the student as a musician. Even if the teacher tests the student "musically," it does not show that the music teacher has taught this student how to dress for performance, how to pay attention and count during rests while other students are playing so he/she does not miss an entrance, etc. What about performing? If value added could be assessed fairly, I would be getting paid for the amazing fact that students who had never acted before are now giving polished performances where they don't forget a single line, stay in character the whole time, and give the audience chills? Do we really want to show students that all we value is test scores? Or do we want to value the fostering and training of talented children who will grow up to wow us and entertain us on the big screen someday? If we spend so much money on entertainment each year (we do- just look at movie box office prices), then why are we valuing it so little in the educational setting?

And even in the things that multiple choice testing really can assess, like reading comprehension and math, they can say that the test only assesses how well the current teacher has taught, but that's not true. If the teacher teaches reading comprehension, he/she can only teach using texts that are at the students reading level. From someone who has students with 3rd and 4th grade reading levels, trust me when I say that this is a challenge. In addition, you can design programs to help these students catch up, but if they refuse to read at home, their reading level does not improve. Then, when they go to take the test, if the text used to assess reading comprehension is say... Nathaniel Hawthorne, it doesn't matter how well the current teacher taught reading comprehension. They will not do well on that test simply because the test is above the student's level of reading fluency, which is not the current teacher's fault; even if the current teacher has done everything he/she can to improve that student's fluency, students don't gain 6 reading levels in one year.

None of this even takes into account that teachers do not have control over what students have going on in their lives, particularly in low income communities. What about the student who sneaks vodka to school in a water bottle and is a little while drunk while taking the test? Or what about the student who just had an abortion last weekend? Do you think either of them give a rip what's on that test? Do you think their results are really a fair reflection of what the teacher taught or the value she added?

I do believe in performance pay- I really do. And I will continue to believe that performance pay should be taken into consideration, but it should not be based solely, or even significantly, to multiple choice tests. If you asked my boss how much value I add to my students, he would probably say a lot.... because he has really seen my students grow. But if you look at my value added style benchmark tests from this semester and note that the median is exactly the same, then the answer would be... none.

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