“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” Sydney J. Harris http://www.quotegarden/
To satisfy NCLB (No Child Left Behind) requirements that student scores rise in reading and
math in grades 3 – 8, school officials needed to track the progress of individual students
over time. This is called value-added assessment. VAM (value-added model) is a method aimed
to measure the extent a teacher affected the gains each student scored on state tests.
VAM was developed by Dr. William Sanders (a statistician) of the University of Tennessee.
His method is purely statistical. It doesn’t involve observing, for example, the teacher
instructing students in the classroom.
I couldn’t help thinking as I learned this, of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalot, who
only looked at the shadow images in her mirror, instead of looking directly out her
window to see the world of reality; thusly, VAM advocates study student
scores and evaluate teachers by looking at the statistics rather than the reality of the
classroom and the living teacher and his/her students.
Dr. Sanders came to the conclusion that the teacher was the most important person
affecting student learning. However, studies have found performance as measured only
by student scores often changes from year to year. Also, many other factors affect
student gains/losses over which the teacher has no control, like the health of the
child, changes in the family, is the student getting enough rest and food, etc.
Professor Sanders compared his method with the “Laissez Faire Approach.” He felt this
approach, in which resources were appropriated, and educators were free to use their
professionalism, had failed. He felt a “rigorous, data-based analysis, such as his, was needed.”
In following the comments on newstories over the VAM controversy and other education related
issues, I sometimes found unions, and union leaders villified, as blindly following the status
quo. I have not found that to be true. I, as a retired teacher, am a member of United Teachers
of Los Angeles (UTLA). I found UTLA and its current president, A.J. Duffy, to be very
responsible and to have a dynamic organization in place. For example, they took the care
and time to do careful research to back up their point of view. It was from them I found out about
the very distinguished Diane Ravitch and her book, The Death and Life of the Great American
The leaders of the union are in touch with the school system, the teachers, and the students.
They are hard to fool. So am I. When they say reduction of class size is one of the best ways
to improve schools, I say, Amen! It is. I know, because I’ve taught large classes and smaller
classes. There’s a world of difference in the learning that takes place. More funding should be
going into reducing class size. This would indeed be a genuine way to improve schools.
On their web site, the union posts links to research. When I wanted to find out more about
VAM, I could click on a link and it would take me to the research so I could read it
for myself. At the end of this article, I’ll be posting a few of these links. It’s a good
way for the public to inform itself and to broaden its view on some of these complex educational
In conclusion, here are some things to think about. I would like to point out that our leaders in Washington
D.C. want our children performing high on tests. Let’s face it, high scores make them look good.
But do these tests really improve our schools? We compare ourselves with other nations with
high scores who may not have the problems we have, or, who are able to put more money into
their schools. Yet, they may not have the challenge of bilingual education or poverty that we
have. They may not have the ideal of educating All students as we in our democratic
society do. Also, the “Laissez Faire Approach” has been declared a failure. Educators are not
being consulted and are not in charge. Yet, who takes the blame when things go wrong? As
the saying goes, I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.
Well, I’ve been sitting a long time working on this article. I think I’ll get out of my chair and have
a look out the window.
* The Death and Life of the Great American School System How Testing and Choice
Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch (pages 178, 179)
**I accessed this research, background and analysis information through www.utla.net
EPI Briefing Paper (Economic Policy Institute August 29, 2010, Briefing Paper 278
Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers
National Education Association nea.org Letter from NEA, CTA, and UTLA to Los Angeles
McCaffrey Study (2009)
What’s wrong with Vallue-added Models and using standardized test scores to access
teacher effectiveness*Understanding VAM