Education and “Liberal” Think Tanks

I thought the Brookings Institution was supposed to be liberal? When it comes to education, their “solutions” sound suspiciously like the tired ideas touted by the Republicans. The Institution’s recently announced “Hamilton Project” begins by conflating two questions: 1) Are American teachers adequately prepared? and 2) Are classroom teachers “effective”? The deeper question, What are the characteristics of an effective teacher? is avoided. The reason it is avoided is because “effectiveness” is one of those words that mean quite different things to different people. The “Hamilton Project” (I wonder if they had long debates as to which “founding father’s” name had the most cachet among conservatives?) makes the very misguided assumption that teacher effectiveness can be measured based upon student achievement (test scores) and subjective evaluations by administrators, peers and parents. They say:

We propose federal support to help states measure the effectiveness of individual teachers-based on their impact on student achievement, subjective evaluations by principals and peers, and parental evaluations.

First of all, evaluation of teachers characteristically includes all of the above with the exception of measures of “student achievement.” So, the two different suggestions here are Federal oversight and measures of student achievement. The erosion of local control of schools has already happened at an alarming rate as a result of NCLB. As is always the case with “federal support” the financial carrot is based upon local school and parents relinquishing control.

Because the use of test scores to evaluate teachers has come under so much criticism, the Hamilton Project turns to the latest measurement panacea, “value-added” measures.

States would be given considerable discretion to develop their own measures, as long as student achievement impacts (using so-called “value-added” measures) are a key component.

So, the one requirement would be the use of “value-added measures. What does this mean? A value-added assessment system (pioneered in Tennessee where it is known as the TVAAS) is a statistically complex process that estimates student growth, based upon test scores, over a number of years. Because the method claims to account for such confounding variables as student ability and background, it promises to measure the “added value” of teacher effectiveness in accounting for student achievement.

The TVAAS value-added assessment is based upon a number of highly questionable and unproven claims. First, it claims that “teacher effectiveness” is the most important factor in determining the outcomes of the learning process. The second claim is that standardized tests accurately measure student learning. Finally, TVAAS makes the radical claim that the value-added statistical method can actually measure the independent and unique contribution a particular teacher makes to her/his student’s growth regardless of that student’s background.

Given the radical nature of these claims, you would expect an extensive body of research behind them. A chapter in a recent in-depth report by the EPSL (Educational Policy Studies Laboratory), which is a highly respected and peer-reviewed journal in educational research, found the opposite to be the case:

Given the revolutionary nature of the claims advanced by TVAAS developers, it is surprising to find that research findings from TVAAS that specifically pertain to claims regarding teacher effectiveness have been discussed in only three peer-reviewed journal articles, two book chapters, and three unpublished research reports, all of them authored by TVAAS staff. Moreover, out of these, only one journal article and two unpublished reports actually present findings from original empirical studies. Other publications, as well as numerous presentations and newspaper interviews with Sanders and other TVAAS staff, typically repeat these findings and their implications or provide general descriptions of the statistical methodology, program operations, and the variety of reports produced by the system.

The EPSL report summarizes its findings in the following statement:

The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) employs a sophisticated statistical methodology to estimate the aggregated yearly growth in student learning, as reflected in changes in test scores in five tested academic subjects. It assumes that changes in test scores from one year to the next accurately reflect student progress in learning. By tracking progress and linking it to schools and teachers, the model asserts that the educational effects of these schools and teachers can be evaluated. Estimates of aggregated gains are used as indicators of how effective teachers and schools have been in raising student performance. Yet, the model’s empirical base is weak and fails to document adequately its efficacy as a teacher evaluation instrument. It remains unclear how other variables that may affect achievement as much as teacher effectiveness will determine the evaluation results. Much more research is needed in order to rationally judge the system’s strength and weaknesses.

Why would the Brookings Institute recommend an educational reform proposal where a key strategy, teacher accountability, was based upon a statistical methodology for which there was not a strong body of research validating its claims? I think the answer is clear. Public education is a political football where those who have most expertise (educational researchers) have little or no power. It seems not to matter if the politics comes from the right or the left. The “Hamilton Project” turns out to be one more attempt to hold teachers completely “accountable” (to blame) for perceived “failures” of American education. This is no different from the Bush administration’s flawed and punitive NCLB debacle.

The EPSL report points out the critical paradox:

The simplicity of the TVAAS model poses an interesting policy paradox. An implicit assumption of the model is that teachers, not students, are responsible for learning and that teachers hold the responsibility to produce measurable progress in learning outcomes. This is a common theme in interpreting TVAAS results. This assumption contradicts an opposite emphasis on student accountability. If indeed, as TVAAS has purported to show, “teachers are the single most important factor affecting student growth,” then a student’s failure to pass a gateway or graduation exam is mainly the responsibility of the teacher. This passive view of students seems unrealistic and may send conflicting messages to teachers and students.

This “policy paradox” underlies the whole of the Bush administration’s education policy framed within “No Child Left Behind” and is continued in the “Hamilton Project”.

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