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Another flawed silver bullet

Posted: April 13, 2012 12:07 p.m.
Updated: April 16, 2012 5:00 a.m.

A few weeks back, I was honored to be present to see the Baron DeKalb Elementary School Improvement Council receive the Dick and Tunky Riley School Improvement Council Award. What made it a particular privilege was the fact that former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley was there to present the award. The opportunity to meet him was truly memorable for me. 

In his remarks before presenting the award, Gov. Riley talked about the importance and value of people working together to achieve a common vision. I was inspired by his words, but then got a little depressed.  Hearing Gov. Riley, a man whose vision for public education in South Carolina moved our state light years forward, reminded me of the lack of a compelling vision that currently exists within our state’s leaders. A couple of months ago, I remarked to our School Board that what is passing for a vision for public education in our state right now is tax credits to attend private school, merit pay and privatizing school buses so that the state can pass this cost on to already cash-strapped local school districts and governments. 

That being said, one of the key components of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver recently submitted by the leadership at the South Carolina Department of Education is “value-added evaluation.”  Under a value-added evaluation model, much of a teacher’s effectiveness is determined based on growth in student test scores over the year. Although the South Carolina Department of Education insists that its support of this model has nothing to do with merit pay (the pitfalls of which I have discussed in a previous column), let’s say I’m skeptical. 

During the public feedback period for the ESEA application, numerous concerns were raised about the statistical inaccuracy of this approach, as much as a 35 percent inaccuracy based on studies by the National Research Council, the Rand Corporation and the Educational Testing Service. The concerns, unfortunately, fell upon deaf ears. (A functionary from the Department of Education suggested to me that opposition to this concept reflected a fear of accountability. I got a kick out of that. The poor guy obviously doesn’t know much about the folks who work here in Kershaw County.)

So how does value-added evaluation look in actual practice? I recently came across an article by Linda Darling-Hammond, a much respected researcher who a few years ago was one of the early proponents of value-added evaluation. Her article discusses the latest experience of the New York City Schools with the model. It is a great example of what happens when you take this concept out of the realm of bureaucratic theory and political posturing and actually implement it. 

Darling-Hammond notes that the New York City Schools released the performance ratings of its 18,000 teachers based on the value-added model. Of course, the New York media, rarely known for their sense of measure, immediately sought to find the “worst” teacher based on the ratings. The teacher identified, Pascale Mauclair, is an experienced and respected teacher who teaches English to newly arrived immigrant students at PS 11, which is recognized as one of New York’s strongest elementary schools. Her principal, one of the most highly regarded in the system, was appalled and declared that, “I would put my own children in her class.” The structure of the system implemented in New York City will soon be implemented across all of New York State, and it will result in most teachers being rated as less than effective. We know this won’t be accurate, so what’s the point?

Value-added evaluation should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about teachers for several reasons.  First, even given sophisticated statistical techniques, the value-added model cannot measure the influence of other factors such as home situation, class size, materials and the availability of additional resources for remediation. Also, studies have shown that value-added ratings are highly unstable and can vary widely from year to year. Finally, these measures are based on performance on multiple choice tests, which do not measure the effectiveness of teachers who increase achievement on higher order skills. The aspect of value-added evaluation that concerns me most; however, is the fact that it serves as a disincentive for quality teachers to work with high risk students. Consider Ms. Mauclair. Her “reward” was a good bashing in the New York media.  (Believe it or not, one New York television station actually went to the home of Ms. Mauclair’s father to ask how he felt about his daughter’s rating. They certainly have chutzpah in the Big Apple.)

Unfortunately, value-added evaluation has nothing to do with quality education or preparing students for the 21st century. It has nothing to do with improving teaching or learning. It won’t help teachers do their jobs or make schools more effective. What it will do is provide another scapegoat for politicians and media. This is simply another flawed silver bullet that will distract us from real issues and actual solutions. Teacher evaluation certainly needs change. The most promising and effective models involve focused, consistent assessment by people with strong teaching expertise and credentials. Such models have costs. Value-added evaluation isn’t as expensive as models that we know work well, but it won’t get us where we need to go either.  Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. And let me ask a final question. Does anyone think private schools that want to benefit from public tax dollars will use this kind of evaluation? 

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at

(Kershaw County School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan is a contributing columnist for the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)



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