Sunday, November 21, 2010

Value-Added Adds Value for Corporate Vultures

The first problem with the Value Added model for teacher accountability is that it commodifies children. In economics, value-added is the difference between the sales price and the cost of a product. The higher the sales price relative to the cost of production, the greater the value added and the greater the profit. Used as an education metaphor, Value-Added models see students as commodities (i.e., future workers). Teachers who produce more productive students (as determined by test scores, or by college/work readiness, to put it in Obama-speak), have a higher added value. These teachers can be seen as super productive because they produce higher value future workers, as measured by test scores or college readiness.

This brings us to a second problem with the Value-Added model: it is not a very good predictor of the actual productivity of future workers. There are a host of factors that influence how we choose our careers and how successful we become. High school test scores are arguably the worst indicator of both. The strongest influence on future success (as measured by income, wealth or any of the usual indicators), as well as student achievement, is family background. Working class parents generally produce working class children. Middle class parents generally produce middle class kids. The rich produce rich kids. This is due in part to inheritance, but also to familial and cultural connections:” It’s not so much what you know, but who you know.” Add to this all the class-based differences in school readiness and extra-curricular enrichment (e.g., nutrition, pollution, pre-natal care, travel, summer camp, pre-school, access to books and learning toys).

Value-Added models are portrayed as statistically believable because they compare student test scores at the end of the year (after the teacher has added his value to the student by way of good instruction) with those at the beginning of the year (prior to the teacher’s influence). To be statistically meaningful, students would have to take the same test twice per year. Yet even this will produce highly biased results. A teacher in a middle class school, for example, will have students who are, on average, much more “school ready.” They are more likely to be reading at grade level, have decent study skills, financial security, enriching extracurricular activities, lower stress, and, therefore, likely to show higher gains than those who are less “school ready.” 

Another thing that troubles me about this way of thinking is the presumption that a valuable member of society is one who produces more wealth, for oneself, or for the boss. A student who goes on to become a CEO or even a small business owner is seen as a productive, valuable member of society, whereas those who go on to become musicians, artists, activists, or social workers are seen as less valuable (some would even call them parasites). What about all the so-called productive sectors of the economy that exist solely to create more capital, but provide no useful service or product for people, like hedge fund managers. (I would call them parasites).

Likewise, teachers who produce students who are good test takers are seen as highly productive under this model, even at the expense of all those other important things we are supposed to teach, like citizenship, self-motivation, communication, empathy, critical thinking. Teachers who teach students how to solve problems, find their own answers, and persevere with difficult tasks are arguably adding far more value to their students’ lives than those who churn out a bunch of effective test-takers.

Lastly (and most importantly), the entire discourse about teacher accountability and teacher effectiveness is a case of a misguided solution to a misdiagnosed problem. If the problem is low student achievement, then let’s address the main cause: poverty. To get the greatest bang for the buck (or value-added), we must address the growing and untenable gap between the rich and the poor. Improving teachers, schools, curricula can help, but their contributions are infinitesimal compared with socioeconomic changes that help bring more people out of poverty. Richard Rothstein has identified numerous policies that have existed in the past that can help (e.g., increasing the earned income credit, housing vouchers, increased nursing and medical support on school campuses). Decreasing taxes for lower income people (especially regressive taxes like sales tax) and increasing it for corporations and the wealthy (along with closing the tax loopholes they exploit) should also help. Strengthening unions and increasing the numbers of unionized workers can help increase wages. Maintaining the mortgage interest tax deduction will help promote increased home ownership, which is one way to increase familial wealth as well as security.

Then again, Value-Added, like charter schools and most ed deform, is not really about improving student achievement. It’s about creating a system that is more valuable to education corporate plunderers by weakening unions and teacher autonomy, decreasing teacher pay and job security, and increasing reliance on commercial tests, textbooks and curricula.

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