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The Politics of Education: Time For Value-Added Analysis in the AAPS

I don’t know many tots who are big fans of the MEAP testing that goes on for two weeks at the beginning of the school year. I’m not a big fan of the weeks of MEAP “prep” that the Ann Arbor School District engages in. They do it, of course, so that parents in wealthy districts, such as Ann Arbor, won’t rise en masse with pitchforks in response to what would surely be lower (in some students/schools significantly lower) MEAP scores if students were simply, well, tested without being “prepped” for the test by their teachers. This is one of the reasons that I look at state-wide comparisons of student achievement based on MEAP scores somewhat cynically. In many ways, prepping students is cheating. On the other hand, tests to gauge student  performance have their detractors. Critics of tests such as the MEAP, SAT and so forth have complained for years that the tests are culturally and socio-economically biased. On the SAT, there was the famous “regatta-oarsman” question that large numbers of white students were able to answer correctly, but only 22 percent of non-white students were able to answer correctly. I imagine regattas are not a part of the typical inner-city school experience.

According to the Superintendent of the Manchester School District in a guest editorial published on October 7, 2010 in the A2Journal, the MEAP test results are:

….[U]sed in a variety of ways. At the student level, your child’s teacher(s) uses the results to identify strengths and learning needs, and to work with you to plan ways to meet those needs. At the school level, MEAP results are used to identify curriculum and/or instructional changes that may need to be made to better serve students. At the district level, MEAP results are used to assess district strengths and weaknesses. At the community level, MEAP results are one piece of information about Manchester Community Schools that is reported to and discussed with parent and community groups.

The Manchester Sup ends by assuring parents that, “There are a variety of ways that you can help your child to be successful on MEAP testing.” Since when was it incumbent on parents to make sure our children were “successful” on the MEAP? Isn’t it a tool to measure educational achievement, or the lack thereof? I always remind my tots that the MEAP is more for the schools to measure the work of the teachers than it is to measure their success on the test. After all, according to the September 23, 2010 issue of Time magazine, only 2 percent of American middle school students test at the “advanced” level in reading, and only 7 percent test at the advanced level in mathematics. At this point, it seems somewhat ridiculous to place responsibility for that result squarely on the shoulders of 59,000,000 American school children and the parents who pay to support the public schools.

In a piece titled “What Makes a Great Teacher,” recently published The Atlantic, Teach For America officials claim to have isolated exactly what makes a great teacher:

…[G]reat teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Getting back to the Manchester Sup’s explanation of how MEAP scores are used in his District, you might have noticed an important omission. The MEAP scores are not used in teacher compensation, retention or evaluation procedures. The MEAP scores are not compiled, analyzed and used, in short, to track student progress as a function of individual teacher performance. This past August, the Los Angeles Times published an exposé in which 6,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified District were rated using the value-added approach. From the L.A. Times:

Value-added estimates the effectiveness of a teacher by looking at the test scores of his students. Each student’s past test performance is used to project his performance in the future. The difference between the child’s actual and projected results is the estimated “value” that the teacher added or subtracted during the year. The teacher’s rating reflects his average results after teaching a statistically reliable number of students.

Shortly after the L.A. Times’s exposé appeared, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a speech in which he called for school districts all over the United States use value-added analysis of teachers’ performance based on student test scores, and to release the information to parents. L.A. Unified Deputy Sup John Deasy announced shortly after the teacher ratings were made public by the newspaper that to improve instruction the district would begin using so-called value-added analysis of teachers’ performance. The teachers union, in contrast, condemned the L.A. Times, and the union president of the Los Angeles Unified District called for a boycott of the newspaper.

As the Ann Arbor Board of Education bandies about the idea of paying the next Superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools a $200,000 salary, and the WISD spends half a billion dollars each year to educate 47,000 students, the time has come to take the bold step of using value-added analysis to gauge teacher effectiveness, and to release the data to parents, as did the Los Angeles Times. A trip to the L.A. Times web site, and parents of a student in the L.A. school district can search a database of the 6,000 teachers and find out which ones, year after year, help students achieve success in the classroom. Yes, they can also find out which teachers, year after year, haven’t helped their students achieve success. Yes, this will mean that parents will demand that their children be placed with the teachers who have the most consistent track records of student success, and that other teachers will be avoided.

If that’s seems unfair, it’s not. If it seems cruel to “out” teachers with poor track records of student achievement year after year, it’s not. 

Public education is not about protecting or providing employment for the adults within a district. It’s about protecting and providing educational opportunity, equally, to every kid who walks through the doors of a public school. Let’s hope the AAPS Board of Education members choose a new Superintendent who is prepared to be bold, and to put the education of our children first. I don’t want my sons to be successful MEAP test takers. I want them to be taught by great teachers who set big goals for them year after year. Every one of the districts in the WISD should answer Secretary Arne Duncan’s call, and  follow the example of the L.A. Unified School District in adopting value-added analysis of student test scores, and making the teacher ratings public in a searchable database. 

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2 Comments for “The Politics of Education: Time For Value-Added Analysis in the AAPS”

  1. Thanks for your concern and efforts! Good read.

  2. Hmmm, Value Added Analysis. Hmmm, based on test scores. Hmmm, so the tests can actually gage educational value? We’re not seeing an improvement in education with standardized testing. We’re seeing a improvement in pavlovian response to stimuli on the part of all parties–students, teachers, parents. I never liked my kids being taught the test. This is nothing but the Taylorization of education. No kid is going to leave a public school with the ability to think if we keep this up. They’ll be great little test-takers. Perfect training for their future role as market research subjects and consumers.

    So does ms.smarty-pants have an answer? Not THE answer, but a place to start. I would suggest that our school systems need to be broken down into smaller autonomous units that are activated/supported at the neighborhood level. This is contrary to the trend of ever more consolidation.

    In 1959 James Bryant Conant, a former Harvard President, published “The American High School Today” in which he called for larger schools. It is important to know where he was starting from. He felt that schools with less than 100 students in a graduating class could not offer optimum diversity of curriculum and social experience. So we started with an administrator suggesting that the small one room classroom was a bust and this was taken by the administrative/managerial class to mean: let’s turn schools into factories. And that’s where we are today.

    I think there is a lot of stink in the educational system, but I cannot lay the blame on lazy or incompetent teachers. I cannot imagine what would possess a well-intentioned, intelligent person to enter the public class room today. There is very little room for agile response to a class’ or individual student’s needs. I doff my hat to teachers in Ann Arbor like Jim Robert, Judith Dewoskin, Ellen Saper, Victoria Shields, Leslie Lawther, Aina Bernier. They are examples of talented teachers surmounting the barriers to teaching set up by the administrative wonks. They must have a lot of faith in the human spirit, because they see the potential in their students to become fully human/humane adults.

    For more info check out these links:

    Recent NYT article on size:
    http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/11/does-the-size-of-a-school-matter/

    A PDF of a study on size (one tidbit of info is that between 1940 and 1990, the number of schools declined by 69% while the population increased by 70%):
    http://www.apexsql.com/_brian/School%20Size%20Matters.pdf

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