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Subtraction by Distraction

Subtraction by Distraction

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Diana Epstein explains why publicly identifying teachers with value-added estimates will actually undermine efforts to improve public schools.
Diana Epstein explains why publicly identifying teachers with value-added estimates will actually undermine efforts to improve public schools.

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Published by: Center for American Progress on Nov 10, 2011
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1Center for American Progress | Subtraction by Distraction: Hindering Education Reform
Subtraction by Distraction
Publishing Value-Added Estimates of Teachers byName Hinders Education Reform
By Diana Epstein and Raegen T. MillerNovember 2011
In August 2010 the
 Los Angeles Times
published a special report on their website featur-ing performance ratings for nearly 6,000 Los Angeles Uni
ed School District teachers.
e move was controversial because the ratings were based on so-called value-addedestimates of teachers’ contributions to student learning.
ese estimates statistically account for the di
erent academic backgrounds children bring to teachers’ classes, butthey are estimates nonetheless, and opaque ones at that. (see text box below) But thenewspaper maximized the controversy 
and perhaps the number of hits it drew to webpages with advertising
 by a
aching teachers’ names to the ratings.
Parents and otherinterested members of the public could look up speci
c teachers in the database and seehow they ranked in both math and English, from least e
ective to most e
ective. As with most value-added estimates, the data were based on students’ standardizedtest scores, and the teachers’ rankings were in relation to their peers. Publishing theserecords led to a
erce debate about whether or not it was appropriate to make this kindof personnel information publicly available.
at discussion continues as the newspaperrecently published an updated database of value-added scores for 11,500 teachers.
 A few months later, the New York City school system planned to release value-addedscores for more than 12,000 teachers in response to multiple public-records requestsfrom news organizations.
e local teachers union objected, particularly since thedistrict had originally promised to keep the information private. In January 2011 a judgeruled that the records could be released, the union appealed, and the release was halted.
en, on August 25, the appellate judge ruled that in fact the scores
 with teachernames a
could be released.
e union appealed again and in September2011 an appellate judge ruled that the New York City Department of Education must
2Center for American Progress | Subtraction by Distraction: Hindering Education Reform
release the names along with ratings based on value-added estimates for approximately 12,000 teachers.
e timeline for compliance with the ruling depends on a threatenedre-appeal by the union and on the decision by the city schools to abandon the teacher-rating system at issue in favor of a new statewide system.
 In both cases, media outlets play the role of protagonist.
e judge’s ruling in New York stems from a freedom of information request made by 
e New York Times
and otherpress outlets, including
e Wall Street Journal
 New York Post 
 New York Daily News
 , andlocal news channel NY1.
ese companies purport, as the
 Los Angeles Times
does, toserve the public interest in improving schools by publishing, by name, teacher ratings based on value-added estimates. At
rst glance the idea seems to possess intuitive appeal. A 
er all, research using value-added estimates shows that teachers are the most important school-based driverof students’ academic success.
So why not turn teacher ratings based on value-addedestimates into a vehicle by which interested parties, especially parents, might pressureschool o
cials into making tough, school-improving decisions?But the decision to publish this information is in fact not so simple. As value-addedmeasures become an accepted component of teacher evaluations, states and schooldistricts will increasingly have to grapple with the question of how much informationshould be made available to the public and how much should remain private becauseof the nature of the information about individual teachers.
is issue brief lays out themain issues to consider and presents examples of how various states and districts arechoosing to handle this very thorny subject. We also highlight distinctions betweeninternal district value-added scores and external construction of value-added scores,the implications for their uses in both cases, and the duties and responsibilities of thosecomputing and publishing the measures.
is issue brief argues that publicly identifying teachers with value-added estimates will actually undermine e
orts to improve public schools. In short, linking names to value-added estimates subjects teachers to an open-ended set of consequences
parentslobbying principals for their children’s reassignment, for instance
 but value-added esti-mates are not
t for any old use. In particular, they should never be used as the sole basisfor informing high-stakes decisions about individual teachers, a position the Center for American Progress has long held.
Our arguments bear repeating in the context of theLos Angeles and New York City dust-ups.
ough we argue against publicly identifyingindividual teachers with value-added estimates, we do think that value-added estimatescan responsibly serve the public interest in other ways.
3Center for American Progress | Subtraction by Distraction: Hindering Education Reform
 The worst way of rating teachers
 Winston Churchill observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government except allthose other forms that have been tried,
and something similar can be said of value-added estimates as measures of teachers’ e
e data requirements of value-added methodology currently limit estimates to the minority of teachers, just those for whom appropriate student test score information is available. Value-added estimatesinherit limitations of achievement tests, which measure students’ knowledge with error.
When a jeweler fashions a ring from a lumpof metal, the di
erence between the pricefetched by the ring and the price paid forthe metal represents the value added by hise
orts. When a teacher instructs a group of students, the conceptually similar ques-tion of value added can also be assessed interms of di
erences. The average changein students’ knowledge of a subject such asmathematics, as indicated by the di
erencebetween standardized test scores obtainedbefore and after some term of instruction,o
ers an estimate of the value added by theteacher during the term.Researchers can simultaneously obtain acollection of value-added estimates forsome group of teachers, such as all thoseassigned to self-contained fourth-gradeclassrooms in a given district or state, byfitting statistical models to an appropriatelyorganized dataset. Such models often use ageneralized notion of di
erence involvingactual test scores and those predicted bysome combination of measures of prior aca-demic achievement. An individual teacher’svalue-added estimate is a measure of hisor her e
cacy, relative to other teachers inthe group, in promoting student achieve-ment. In addition, value-added estimatesfor teachers can be bundled into estimatesspeaking to schools’ relative e
cacy.The bottom-line certainty conveyed bythe term “value added” is not applicablein education since estimates are plaguedwith issues, most of them quite technical.Value-added estimates can nonetheless helpanswer questions such as these:Are the least-e
ective teachers over-repre-sented in high-poverty schools?
Are students’ perceptions of the instruc-tional environment useful indicators of teacher e
Which of a state’s authorized teacher-train-ing programs is most successful in produc-ing e
ective teachers?
Do seniority-based layo
policies makesense from an economic perspective?
 In which of a district’s schools should teach-ers receive performance bonuses?
 The gravity and variety of these questionsmakes clear that value-added estimatesconstitute a potent tool for research anddevelopment around education policy andpractice. Yet value-added estimates shouldnever be used as the sole basis for high-stakes decisions about individual teachers.Even those researchers most articulate andvocal about the reasons for this proscrip-tion agree that value-added estimatesprovide important information that can beresponsibly used but only in conjunctionwith other measures.
The ABCs of value-added estimation

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