The release of teachers’ VA rankings should not be viewed as an attack on teachers, but as a wake-up call for the rest of us.

The recent release of teachers’ value added (VA) rankings by the New York Times reignited a controversy which began when the Los Angeles Times did the same thing in 2010. The value added technique of rating teachers is “based on their students’ progress on standardized tests year after year. The difference between a student’s expected growth and actual performance is the ‘value’ a teacher adds or subtracts during the year.”

The imbroglio has two facets – the first being whether or not teachers can be accurately evaluated by how well their students do on a standardized test. As I wrote in January,

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

The second and more contentious element of VA concerns itself with who should get to see the teacher’s ranking. Some think it should be just the principal who can use the data to help low performing teachers. Others think that parents should also be allowed to learn about the effectiveness of their child’s teacher. And finally there are those who demand that all people — especially taxpayers — should have access to them. The reasoning, of course, is that since taxpayers are shelling out for the teachers’ salaries, they have a right to know what they are getting for their money.

Unsurprisingly, the anti-VA charge has been led by the teachers unions which constantly demonize the whole process as unreliable and unfair. But that is just a front; their “philosophy” is that there is no such thing as a bad teacher, just one that needs more training to become a good one. The reality is that unions despise it when any teacher – good or incompetent – loses a job, because it means one less dues payer. In California, for example, one less teacher means $647 fewer dollars for the California Teachers Association. And the national and local union affiliates also lose money. So keeping every body in the classroom is imperative for them.

Even concerned reformers like Bill Gates and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp are antipathetic toward the release of test scores to the public, using phrases like “a capricious exercise in public shaming.”

My take is that, while not a perfect measure, VA still should be used and made public. But at the same time, it should be stressed that other factors need to be taken into consideration when measuring a teacher’s effectiveness. Both the NY and LA Times, to their credit, acknowledged this and also allowed teachers to post comments with their scores.

However, there is a part of this story which has not been examined. Publishing a teachers VA rank is no more “public shaming” than publishing a baseball player’s batting average in the daily newspaper. It is what it is. But as any knowledgeable 5th grader knows, there is more to a baseball player than his batting average. Is the player a good base stealer? Can he field? Does he draw a lot of walks? Is he a team leader? Anyone who is interested in baseball knows this. The take-away then is not to hide test scores from the public, but for parents and taxpayers to become as interested and knowledgeable about education as they are about baseball and demand more from the educational establishment.

So if there is any shame to be identified, it is that, as a country, we are more informed about the intricacies of baseball than about how best to assess the people who are educating the next generation of Americans.

If nothing else, the posting of teachers’ VA scores has opened a Pandora’s Box which the American public must deal with sooner rather than later.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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