If Not VAM, Then What?

Yesterday, Libby Nelson and the good folks over at Politico Education reported a new American Federation of Teachers campaign, flying under the banner of “VAM is a sham.”  The target is the latest generation of educator evaluation models intended to increase accountability and ensure that every child has an effective teacher leading the classroom.

According to Politico, the impetus for such an effort was that AFT President Randi Weingarten, after negotiating and agreeing to a number of teacher evaluation systems that depend on value-added measures, or VAM, “found the process corrosive: The VAM score was just a number that didn’t show teachers their strengths or weaknesses or suggest ways to improve.  Weingarten said the final straw was the news that the contractor calculating VAM scores for D.C. teachers made a typo in the algorithm, resulting in 44 teachers receiving incorrect scores — including one who was unjustly fired for poor performance.”
Of course, supporting VAM only to later oppose it shouldn’t come as any big surprise.  Last spring, Governing magazine wrote about how an NEA-led lawsuit against Florida teacher evals was going to spread nationwide.  In New Mexico, the AFT has already filed suit against a system that isn’t even fully up and running.  In Boston, a district with nearly 5,000 teachers, the AFT recently filed suit to block BPS from taking action against the 30 lowest performing teachers, according to the evaluation system in place.
At the heart of opposition to VAM is including student performance — or test scores — in a teacher evaluation.  While no teacher evaluation system relies 100 percent on test scores, it is indeed a factor in every such evaluation.  After all, if an educator’s job is to teach, isn’t one of the measures of effectiveness whether the student has actually learned what has been taught?
Yes, we can argue about the fairness of one single summative test in a teacher evaluation.  But that can be navigated through the adoption of formative and interim measures into the process.  Simply saying that the outcomes have no place in the evaluation process just doesn’t make sense.
But Eduflack will set all that aside for a moment.  If we believe that “VAM is a sham” (a line actually used by Diane Ravitch last year), what should replace VAM when it comes to accountability and educator evaluation?  How do we truly measure if a teacher is effective or not without looking, in part, to student performance?
On its website, the AFT offers up a number of “standards” that should be included in the process.  Standards for a common vision of teaching.  Standards for professional context.  Standards for systems of support.  But these all seem to be about the inputs that go into instruction.  That’s fine and good.  But what about the outcomes?
When Eduflack was on the front lines of the education reform battles in Connecticut, the unions were strong opponents to any changes to the evaluation system or to increased accountability.  Ultimately, all sides agreed to test scores being 40 percent of the evaluation.  
Interestingly, one of the strongest arguments against the new model was that teachers were opposed to principal evaluation in the process.  They felt such observations were subjective and allowed administrators to play favorites.  It got so heated that one legislator actually suggested forgoing scores and supervisor evaluations to bring in teacher SWAT teams from other states who would know good teaching when they saw it.  Fortunately, such an approach went nowhere.  But are we now saying that test scores and supervisor evals are both off the table?
As we now see VAM in place in states like Illinois and Florida, Colorado and Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Mexico, what is the better mousetrap?  If AFT, NEA, and others don’t want a VAM reliant on a summative test score, then how do we effectively evaluate educators (and I mean both teachers and principals) by both the inputs they bring and the outcomes they achieve?
Sure, one has a right (and many feel an obligation) to stand up and oppose VAM.  But without a viable alternative, what are we saying?  Effective teaching can’t be quantitatively measured?  Good teaching doesn’t necessarily translate to student learning and mastery?  Or that we just don’t want to know the answer?

3 thoughts on “If Not VAM, Then What?

  1. The statement “supporting VAM only to later oppose it shouldn’t come as any big surprise,” followed by “Last spring, Governing magazine …” impugns Ms. Weingarten falsely.The Governing article applies to the NEA, not AFT. This blog post ignores the criticism that the AFT members have poured on Ms. Weingarten for supporting VAM because VAM appears to be have mainly been used to fire people incorrectly, not help students. Ms. Weingarten is not immune to facts and pressure. Her behavior suggests an honest attempt to work with management and advocates. She should be applauded; not condemned.There have been alternatives to VAM presented, this blog dismisses them out-of-hand.In my opinion, VAM is like the SAT. A useful number, but no school to the best of my knowledge admits students purely on a SAT score. VAM with other measures would be of value.

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