Value-Added Teacher Evaluation Models Fail Kids AND Communities

Anyone that has spent any length of time following the Radical knows that the test-happy culture that we’re swimming in rubs me the wrong way.  It’s simultaneously stripping the joy out of learning and driving good teachers out of the classroom all in a thinly-veiled attempt to declare war on teachers.

What frustrates me the most about today’s accountability culture has always been the suggestion that measuring student performance on content-driven multiple choice tests given once per year is the best way to measure the “value that teachers add” to their kids, their schools and their communities.

That’s ALWAYS sat wrong with me — and it should sit wrong with YOU too.

Teachers do SO much more for our kids than deliver content. We coach and we encourage and we inspire.  We are cheerleaders.  Kids take risks while they are in our classes that they may never have even considered had it not been for the fact that they knew we cared.

But in a world where tests are created with the sole intention of ranking and sorting our teachers, those intangibles — those small acts of kindness and care that keep kids moving forward — are dismissed, pushed aside by politicians who argue that the only value that matters rests in the results that we can measure with multiple choice exams.

My rants against testing have always felt half-baked to me, though, because I could never back up my assertions with a healthy dose of research — the Turkish Delight of the #edpolicy kingdom.

Until now, that is.

You see, a new study from Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University FINALLY supports my hunch that our single-minded determination to assess and evaluate the cognitive impacts that teachers have on students is flawed policy at best — and failing our children at worst.

What Jackson — who was interested in determining the impact that cognitive and non-cognitive behaviors have on the future success of students — discovered should force every parent, politician and policymaker who cares about schools to rethink the role that testing plays in our buildings.

First, he discovered that non-cognitive skills and abilities like motivation, determination, and self-restraint are a better predictor of future success — particularly for struggling students — than the cognitive skills measured by standardized tests.

Perhaps more importantly, he discovered that SOME teachers are good at increasing the cognitive skills of their students and OTHER teachers are good at increasing the non-cognitive skills of their students, but MOST teachers AREN’T good at increasing BOTH cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

This has HUGE implications, doesn’t it?

If Jackson’s research and methodology is sound, current educational policies — which prioritize test scores when measuring a teacher’s value — are incentivizing the WRONG behaviors. 

Our students are the ultimate losers in environments that encourage teachers to push non-cognitive skills and abilities — skills and abilities that Jackson argues are actually BETTER indicators of future success — to the sidelines in response to the cognitive-first realities they are working in.

What politicians who are pushing the testing culture in our schools should REALLY worry about, though, is that educational policies designed to reward teachers for producing results on standardized tests are actually wasting taxpayer cash.

As Jackson explains:

“Teacher effects on test scores and teacher effects on non-cognitive ability are weakly correlated such that many teachers in the top of test score value-added distribution will also be among the bottom of teachers at improving non-cognitive skills.

This means that a large share of teachers thought to be highly effective based on test score performance will be no better than the average teacher at improving college-going or wages.”

And:

“Because variability in outcomes associated with individual teachers that is unexplained by test scores is not just noise, but is systematically associated with their ability to improve typically unmeasured non-cognitive skills, classifying teachers based on their test score value added will likely lead to large shares of excellent teachers being deemed poor and vice versa.”

Just stew in that for a minute, will you?

We are literally spending MILLIONS of dollars  — not to mention MILLIONS of instructional hours — every year measuring the wrong skills and rewarding the wrong teachers!  Sure, mastering the content covered in the K12 curricula matters, but according to Jackson, mastering non-cognitive skills — skills that we currently do nothing to assess — matters more.

No joke, y’all:  It’s time that you start asking your policymakers some difficult questions about their positions on value-added measures of teacher performance.

If Jackson is right, those policies — which have rapidly become the norm instead of the exception in most states in America — are wasting our time AND our money.

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Related Radical Reads:

Nate Silver on Using Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers

Three Things Parents and Policymakers Need to Know about Merit Pay in Education

What Economists Don’t Understand about Educators