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Tag: evaluation

More Statistical Crap

More on the statistical crap known as Value-Added Measure (VAM), the teacher evaluation system that’s supposed to incorporate the improvement in learning (aka standardized test scores) experienced by students in their classes.

This time some teachers and their local union are suing the Houston Independent School District over the way this process has been applied.

There’s not much new in their criticism of this “badly flawed method of evaluating teacher effectiveness”, one that’s already been challenged by people who actually understand the analysis of data, the American Statistical Association.

However, one highly inaccurate statement posted to the district website in support of using VAM jumped out at me:

Nothing matters more to student success than teachers.

While good teachers certainly can make a difference, there are many studies showing that a student’s socioeconomic status and parents are far more important factors of their success in school.

And, which is important in this case, there’s very little credible research1 supporting VAM as a teacher evaluation tool or as a means of improving student learning (again, aka standardized test scores).

Unexpected Change

Speaking of teacher evaluation (which I was in yesterday’s post), Jay Mathews has changed his mind about the use of standardized tests in that process.

I used to think student test score gains were a good way to rate teachers. I don’t think that any more. Grading individual teachers with scores is too approximate, too erratic and too destructive of the team spirit that makes great schools. Rating schools, rather than teachers, by test score gains is better, at least until we find a way to measure deeper indicators of learning.

My immediate response was, it’s about time. Teachers do not do great work in isolation. They have always had a support system of some kind and we should be evaluating and rewarding everyone as a team as well as individuals.

Anyway, so what changed the mind of Mathews? Well, he doesn’t make that completely clear in this column but it has something to do with his admiration for the teachers receiving the Agnes Meyer award, given annually by his employer, The Washington Post, to the teacher of the year in each of the DC area districts. Plus other teachers he has written about over the years.

Mathews goes on to note that the assessment system used in DC (and elsewhere) puts too much emphasis on student test schools, rarely mentioning the “creativity and vitality” of the teacher or schools, and making a “big deal” out of adhering to the rules. I actually agree with him that the teachers who do the best work for kids are usually the ones who are not afraid to challenge and break those rules when necessary.

While I’m not sure I subscribe to Mathews’ idea that we should go back to the “old fashioned” system in which teacher evaluation is based solely on principal observations, at least he’s headed in the right direction.

However, if Mathews would only change his mind and abandon the incredibly narrow and “too approximate, too erratic, and too destructive” system of evaluating the quality of high schools known as the “challenge” index (which, of course, is his invention and also ignores “creativity and vitality”), that would be very unexpected, and welcome, change.

Evaluating Gates

Earlier this week, the Post gave Bill Gates some prime space on the op-ed page so he could offer “a fairer way to evaluate teachers“.*

And he begins with a really crappy analogy, comparing developing “fantastic teachers” with the way that football teams “identify and nurture” their players.

Completely ignoring that those players, although evaluated as individuals, do not work in isolation. Their success, even that of a star quarterback like Gates’ example, Tom Brady, is very much dependent on the great support of many other people in a well-funded organization.

Teachers, however, in the view of Gates, many politicians, and other education “experts”, are expected to be rated based only on a very narrow measure of their work with absolutely no regard for any other factors.

The remainder of the piece is a messy mix of clichés in which he talks about using “multiple measures” and how “teachers want an environment based on collaboration” without any specifics. Certainly he doesn’t offer anything to convince the reader that he has a clue about the teaching process or how to evaluate it.

Although Gates and his business friends have been accorded a great deal of influence in the discussion over education reform, they do so with no accountability whatsoever.  To correct that situation, Anthony Cody writing at Education Week Teacher proposes The Billionaire Philanthropist Evaluation, noting that the kind of accountability they demand from teachers “is a street that goes one way only”.

Needless to say, Gates does not fare very well, starting with his lack of awareness of the social conditions that impact the learning of many students and extending to his poor understanding of effective instruction.

The bottom line?

Mr. Gates falls below standards in all four of the areas that were observed. His philanthropic activities should be suspended immediately pending his completion of the recommended professional growth activities.

Of course that won’t happen. He has enough money to buy a higher grade.


* Just for good measure, the editors included a video of Gates giving expert opinion on cyber security (which he might know something about considering how buggy Windows was while he was CEO), and… the new pope?

If It’s Crappy Enough for Bill…

Vanity Fair this month has a long look at how Microsoft has managed to screw up a lot of things about it’s business over the past decade or more. Having been deeply involved with personal computing since the time the company began1, I found the whole thing fascinating. Your mileage may vary.

However, there is one section of the article that I think should interest anyone involved with public education.

In it the author discusses what she sees as a major cause of Microsoft’s lack of innovation and subsequent decline, a personnel evaluation system used within the company called “stack ranking”.

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed–every one–cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system–also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”–has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Now the CEO who signed off on using this “destructive process” (that would be Bill Gates) is considered a “visionary” leader in the education reform movement. And he and his billion dollar foundation are advocating for several other similarly adversarial assessment programs for teachers such as merit pay and “value added” rankings.

Assessment programs which continue to envision classrooms as discreet spaces sealed off from the rest of the world, and teachers as independent contractors whose work is the only influence on student achievement (aka test scores).

I’m certainly not the first person to make the connection between Microsoft’s stack ranking and Gates pushing the idea that teacher assessment should be a more competitive process. But that point needs to be repeated as often as possible.

The bottom line that Gates and others miss entirely in their efforts to “reform” education is that schools are not businesses and those corporate practices cannot, and should not, be applied to the process of teaching and learning.

Especially an evaluation system that has been a major contributing factor to screwing up what was at one time the most valuable company in the US.


1 Although, in all those many years, I’ve never actually bought a Microsoft product or anything containing one. I do have Windows and Office on my MacBook Pro but those licenses belong to my school system.

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