Value Added, Reality Lost: Trouble with Education Analysis

by Stacy Martinez

April 5, 2016

Cover Photo Credit

When children fail to achieve educational milestones, it is often a strong predictor of failure later in life.  This can impact not only individuals and their families, but communities as a whole in the form of decreased tax revenue, higher crime rates and declining property values.  Most everyone can agree that higher levels of educational attainment by the community as a whole lead to a stronger and more stable society. It is no surprise that policy makers seek to increase educational achievement.

In recent years there has been an increase in using value added models (VAMs) of analysis to show not how students are progressing, but how individual teachers are contributing to the progression of the children they teach.  Value added models attempt to measure a teacher’s performance over time based on the test scores of students, while attempting to account for things such as low income and English second language learners.  If the teacher isn’t showing measured increase in performance of students the teacher may be given extra instruction and if improvement doesn’t occur, in some cases, the teacher can be fired for failing to meet the mark of adding value.

The solution that VAMs attempt to bring to bear on the problem of students failing to meet educational goals is accountability.  Children who fail in school have statistically higher chances of poverty, incarceration and teen pregnancy, all burdens to society.  If we hold teachers accountable by putting their jobs on the line, shouldn’t we be able to increase the chances of success for our children and for society as well?  The answer is no; but we will have someone to hold accountable.

The question is: Who responsible for a child’s failure to learn?  The answer isn’t easy.  There is no statistical model that can predict a child’s success with accuracy.  What we do know for certain is that there are many influences that lead to a child’s improved scholastic performance and ability to learn.  We also know with certainty that a teacher only has a finite amount of time to influence and teach a child.

There are 168 hours in a week, a child is in a classroom approximately 6 hours a day, or 30 hours a week. During a week of school a child spends 17.8% of their time with an educator.  Keeping in mind that school is in session approximately 40 weeks, a child is under the influence of an educator 13.7% of the year, yet VAMs expect teachers to be responsible for a much higher percentage of a child’s success than 13.7%.  What is the level of responsibility the teacher has? What is the level of responsibility that the parent has?  That the extended family has? Is there a level of responsibility that the child has?  You can argue the varying levels of responsibility that exist, but it is difficult to put punitive measures on any of the above except the teacher if a child fails to learn. The system cannot control the environment outside the classroom. But it can control that 13.7% of a child’s year, and it can put punitive measures unfairly on a teacher.

The public school system of every state in the union undeniably owes its citizens access to a quality education that is staffed with proficient educators and the appropriate resources that enable learning to occur.  Teachers should be evaluated, but the cost of using value added models to hold teachers accountable is a failing proposition.  It does not solve or address the underlying societal problems that cause children to fail to school. We all understand that more than 85% of a child’s life is spent outside the classroom, and that 85% is going to determine how the child grows up, how much money they earn, their rates of incarceration and teenage pregnancy.  Everyone knows it.  Yet some policy makers want to take a “stand for the future of our children” by taking the unrealistic position that teachers are responsible for much more than 13.7% or even 20%, and should be held accountable.  This is unrealistic, but most importantly, it won’t work.