Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers

Check out the Answer Sheet post about the five myths that are distracting policy makers from making good decisions. The crux of the post appears to be that everyone disagrees about what good teaching looks like. I think that’s probably true. Possibly because there’s more than one way to skin a cat. What this leads to, apparently, is political leaders who demand pay for performance based on test scores and value added statistical formulas.

First, I would like to take a little detour into the weird vilification of value added. The phrases “statistical formula” and “value-added” seem to always freak people out. I think it is because most people aren’t that comfortable with numbers (hey education system, fix this please), and certainly fear statistics, thinking it is a medium through which powerful people manipulate the truth. Nonetheless, statistics and numbers and value-added are part of our reality. We are constantly assessing how much value something is adding throughout our daily lives, whether in personal relationships, when buying bread, and when debating whether the Washington Redskins should blow $100m on another head-case free agent.

What people are trying to accomplish through value added models is to figure out how much a teacher is really helping a student while taking into account all the things that teachers can’t control and don’t want to be held accountable for. Basically, value-added is intended to protect teachers from being punished for teaching poor kids, with limited English skills and little parental involvement and prevent teachers from being rewarded just because their students are rich, learned a million vocabulary words in kindergarten and already speak five languages. This effort does not sound so nefarious to me. The intention is to even the playing field and minimize perverse incentives that push good teachers towards the schools that need them the least. Is it perfect? Like all statistical models, hell no. But discounting it as a tool in favor of the “I have no idea so I’ll just stick with the one-size fits all, lock step approach, that over rewards my worst employees” seems a little ridiculous. Maybe our time would be better spent learning more about how to use these models to ensure that they are fair and well connected to reality rather than dismissing them out of hand as voodoo magic. Because what we do right now is voodoo magic.

Secondly, I’ll break this into multiple posts because I’m feeling a little outraged right now and I haven’t even gotten to any of the five myths referenced in the actual blog post.

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