The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

It May Be Time to Damn VAM

on June 27, 2017

When I read the Bloomberg View article Don’t Grade Teachers With a Bad Algorithm”, by Cathy O’Neil, a few months ago, it didn’t seem urgent enough to report to readers right away. Now that schools are closed for the summer, however, we may have the time to find out if the VAM algorithm is still used in our state to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and to do something about it.

How should teacher performance be evaluated? As a principal for 25 years, I did that job by observing teachers over time in different situations. Besides observing in classrooms, I often participated in curriculum planning meetings or sat in on a conference with a student and a parent. I also looked for teacher leadership, innovation, and willingness to go the extra mile. In short, I knew my teachers well and could help them when needed. They also helped me to be a better principal.

On the other hand, I did not use students’ test scores as a factor in judging teacher competence. I realized that there were too many personal problems that might affect students’ test performance, such as being bullied, having health issues, or dealing with trouble at home.

Under the rule of NCLB teacher evaluations using the “Value Added Model” known as VAM, were dominant throughout the country.  It was applied to students’ test scores to measure their growth by the difference between how well a class of students was predicted to perform and how well they actually performed.

The problem with VAM is that it was designed in the 1980s to evaluate the growth of agricultural crops, not human growth. Yet, all too often when test scores in classrooms varied widely from year to year, teachers have been held accountable. Many of them who had been judged effective over time were punished because of one year’s low VAM score for their students.

As might be expected, teachers in various places protested their poor ratings and the punishments that followed. Some were angry enough about their unfair treatment to start lawsuits against their school districts, and a few won them. In New York State, for example, a judge determined that the VAM system was “arbitrary and capricious.” and decided in favor of the teacher who had filed the suit. In Houston, Texas a group of teachers who had suffered various punishments for low VAM scores won a similar suit.

Those successful lawsuits and the many continuing complaints from teachers in other places have already convinced policy makers to remove the federal funding incentives from ESSA that supported VAM. It’s hard to believe that many states will continue to use that flawed measurement tool as the right way to judge teacher performance. But then, the reason why it has stayed with us so long is that school principals have not been doing their job.


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