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Doug Harris Crunches Critics in Value-Added Smackdown

The University of Wisconsin's Doug Harris has torched a couple of would-be critics for their inane, inept, and unfair review of his book Value-Added Measures in Education (Harvard Education Press 2011). For those who appreciate such things, his response is a classic dismemberment of the Education Review take penned by Arizona State University's Clarin Collins and Audrey Amrein-Beardsley. For everyone else, it's important because it sheds light on why it's so damn hard to sensibly discuss issues like value-added accountability. (Collins and Amrein-Beardsley also penned a re-rebuttal, which is fun primarily because it reads like a note from the kid you caught spray-painting your Prius who tells you, "It wasn't me, it wasn't spray paint, I was actually washing your car, and I was only trying to help hide that dent.")

I've long argued that the worthwhile debate over value-added accountability is not whether it's "good" or "bad" but how to do it smart. Harris tries to write a book on just that question, full of useful insights and caveats. His reward for his efforts is to get bludgeoned by Collins and Amrein-Beardsley, who label him a value-added enthusiast for failing to reflexively reject value-added systems. This is the kind of crazed reaction that substitutes bizarre litmus tests (are you "for" or "against" value-added?) for useful discussion. Fortunately, rather than just sink back in frustration, Harris pushes back hard.

From a safe distance, this particular back-and-forth is kind of funny. Given that Harris, Collins, and Amrein-Beardsley are all in schools of education, this is really a clash between two wings of the ed school left. (Safe to say that I don't have much skin in this one. Though, full disclosure, Harris is a friend and I'm acknowledged in the book.)

Harris, a progressive who started at the left-leaning Education Policy Institute, penned a book that takes pains, as he says, "to carefully present the various sides and perspectives on" value-added for the benefit of policymakers and educators. AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote the book's foreword. Think of Harris as clearly to the left, say, of Democrats for Education Reform.

But that might as well make him a, gasp, Republican to Collins and Amrein-Beardsley. They accuse Harris of reaching the "cardinal conclusion" that "value-added models, while imperfect, are good enough." They charge, "Harris supports the adoption of value-added systems as the nation's new and improved educational accountability system."

Harris points out in his rebuttal that he never said any such thing, and took pains to say the opposite. He writes that their review "invents conclusions and arguments that I neither make nor imply.... [They] orient their entire review around the idea that I believe value-added measures are 'good enough'. Using the phrase five times, they also place these words in quotation marks at one point...Unfortunately, I did not use those two words, or suggest such an interpretation, anywhere in the book."

How did Collins and Amrein-Beardsley answer Harris's rebuttal in their re-rebuttal? (I told you this gets pretty funny.) Well, you see, "When someone writes a book with the careful intention of taking a balanced approach, it should be expected that in absence of definitive conclusions, readers will take away various perceptions on the author's stance." So there!

Moreover, they explain, Harris had previously written, "No performance measure or accountability policy is perfect, of course, and it may be...that teacher value-added accountability is better than the alternatives." This proves, they say, that Harris champions value-added systems. Wait...what?!! This is made all the more bizarre given that Collins and Amrein-Beardsley concede that Harris "strongly cautions others against using value-added output for high-stakes purposes."

I was once again struck by the quivering, uncontained loathing with which so many self-styled defenders of public schooling approach questions like value-added accountability and differentiated pay. Collins and Amrein-Beardsley even offer statements like "my intention in this book is to find a more productive middle ground" and "expansion of standardized testing...has opened up a world of evaluation possibilities" as proof that Harris thinks value-added metrics are "good enough." (Though, as a clearly puzzled Harris remarks, "good enough" for what is never made clear.)

If you're so blinded by rage that you can't respond thoughtfully or coherently to a serious book on a pressing issue, even one penned by a fellow lefty, introduced by Randi Weingarten, published by an education school press, and offering a remarkably measured take on a thorny question, you've pretty much ensured that you can't contribute meaningfully to the educational conversation. At that point, you're just taking up space.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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