When educational research reaches the public through the corporate media, the consequences are often dire. Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff released "The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood" and immediately The New York Times pronounced in "Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gains":
"Elementary- and middle-school teachers who help raise their students’ standardized-test scores seem to have a wide-ranging, lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates and greater college matriculation and adult earnings, according to a new study that tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years."
The simplistic and idealistic headline reflects the central failure of the media in the education reform debate, highlighted by careless reporting such as including this quote from one of the study's researchers:
“'The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,' Professor Friedman said."
This newest attempt to justify value-added methods for identifying, rewarding, and retaining high-quality teachers (as well as firing so-called weak teachers) has yet to be peer-reviewed, and two close examinations of the study—by Matthew Di Carlo
and Bruce Baker
—have praised the data but urged caution about conclusions drawn by the researchers and the media response:
"This appropriately cautious conclusion stands in stark contrast with the fact that most states have already decided to do so. It also indicates that those using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings." (Di Carlo)
"These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.)" (Baker)
Despite these strong and careful cautions, Dana Goldstein has now followed up with a praising piece in The Nation
that links to Di Carlo's work, but on balance accepts Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff's claims and suggests:
"Given the widespread, non-ideological worries about the reliability of standardized test scores when they are used in high-stakes ways, it makes good sense for reform-minded teachers’ unions to embrace value-added as one measure of teacher effectiveness, while simultaneously pushing for teachers’ rights to a fair-minded appeals process. What’s more, just because we know that teachers with high value-added ratings are better for children, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should pay such teachers more for good evaluation scores alone. Why not use value-added to help identify the most effective teachers, but then require these professionals to mentor their peers in order to earn higher pay?"
Journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and researchers are nearly uniform in failing to identify the central flaw in pursuing data as the holy grail of identifying and rewarding high-quality teachers, and the persistent positive response to Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff's study doesn't prove VAM works but does reveal that there is little hope we'll make any good decisions about teachers and schools any time soon.
Teaching in a Time of Tyranny
Ten years into the federalized accountability era designated as No Child Left Behind, one fact of education is rarely mentioned (except by people who do spend and have spent their lives actually teaching children day in and day out): Since 1983's A Nation at Risk, and intensified under NCLB, teachers have systematically been de-professionalized, forced by the weight of policy and bureaucracy to implement standards they did not create, to prepare students for tests they did not create (and cannot see, and likely do not support), and to be held accountable for policies and outcomes that are not within their control.
And this is the fact of the accountability era that has evolved from holding students accountable for test scores in the beginning to the more recent call to hold teachers accountable because, as media pundits claim, teachers and their protective unions are all that is wrong with the U.S.—at least according to Mort Zuckerman on CNN:
"I think there are huge problems in this country and a lot of it, in my judgment, stems not from capitalism [emphasis added] but from the government....
"Because the education is a government function. If there ever was a public function in this country from the days it started, it's public education and we've done a lousy job. Part of it is frankly because we have lousy teachers.
"Part of the reason we have lousy teachers is we have teachers union that say won't deal with those issues. So there are lots of reasons why education is not being properly handled in this country."
If U.S. public education is failing (and that is at least complicated, if not mostly inaccurate) and if teachers are the source of that failure (and that is demonstrably untrue since out-of-school factors represent at least two-thirds of the influence on measurable student outcomes), let's consider where the accountability should lie.
For the past ten years, teachers have been reduced to mere conduits of policy, curriculum, and tests that have nothing in common with what educators and researchers know to be best practice. Teacher have had little or no autonomy in these decisions and practices. To hold people accountable for implementing behaviors they do not control or support is, simply put, tyranny—not accountability.
The teacher quality debate is failing among political leaders, corporate elites, and the media because none of them are teachers, and as a consequence, they are controlling a debate about reform that they do not allow to start where it should—not at how to measure teacher quality, but at creating teaching and learning environments that honor the autonomy of children and teachers as professionals.
The ugly truth is that the leading elite do not truly respect children (especially children of color, children living in poverty, and children speaking home languages other than English), and they genuinely do not want professional teachers.
If children were treated with dignity in our schools and provided the environment they deserve to look critically at the world and if teachers were allowed their professional autonomy and held accountable for only that over which they have control, those children and teachers would likely notice and confront the tremendous inequity being controlled and perpetuated by the corporate leaders, corporate politicians, and corporate media—threatening the privilege that is being protected by calls for more testing, more data, and more accountability.
Hasty and misleading reactions to research that confirms the corporate narrative and even moderate pleas for compromise, such as Goldstein's, are equally inexcusable because they all fail to confront that accountability without autonomy is tyranny.
We are a people tragically enamored with data to the exclusion of humanity, dignity, and the very ideals we claim to be at center of our country—individual autonomy.
And we have sold our souls to capitalism, blind to the reality that the only thing free about the market is that our consumer culture is free of any ethics, free of any commitment to social justice.
Of course teacher quality matters, of course every child deserves a quality teacher. But that isn't something we can measure and force to happen as if students and teachers are cogs in a machine.
So ultimately every second spent crunching data about VAM is wasted time; every moment and penny spent on more standards and testing, also wasted time.
Teaching, learning, and human autonomy are complicated and beyond metrics, but they must become the ideals we put into practice. All else is tyranny.