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AFT's Weingarten Backtracks on Using Value-Added Measures for Evaluations

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has announced that she'll call for the end of using "value added" measures as a component in teacher-evaluation systems.

Politico first reported that the AFT is beginning a campaign to discredit the measures, beginning with the catchy (if not totally original) slogan "VAM is a sham." We don't yet know exactly what this campaign will encompass, but it will apparently include an appeal to the U.S. Department of Education, generally a proponent of VAM.

Value-added methods use statistical algorithms to figure out how much each teacher contributes to his or her students' learning, holding constant factors like student demographics.   

In all, though, Weingarten's announcement is less major policy news than it is something of a retreat to a former position.

When I first interviewed Weingarten about the use of test scores in evaluation systems, in 2008, she said that educators have "a moral, statistical, and educational reason not to use these things for teacher evaluation." 

Two years later, Weingarten stated in a well-covered speech that student test scores could be appropriate if they measured growth in learning and were coupled with other measures. A few AFT affiliates, in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Hillsborough County, Fla., planned or started to use VAM; a few others selected non-VAM approaches but also started looking at gauges of learning.

So what accounts for this reversal? 

Weingarten told Politico that the situation in the District of Columbia, in which a contractor goofed more than 40 teachers' scores, resulting in one being terminated, was essentially the straw that broke the camel's back. On Twitter, she cited research papers that have found the VAM estimates to be quite volatile from year to year. Although most states and districts are coupling the VAM estimates with other measures, Weingarten contends that "in the trenches" the test scores have dominated the systems. And, of course, many affiliates have pushed back against evaluation systems based on these, as in Florida, where teachers were furious about the fact that some of the calculations were based on students they didn't teach.

There are also the tricky rubber-hitting-the-road details, as in Pittsburgh, where the union has petitioned against the cutoff scores set on the evaluation system, which would result in approximately 9 percent of teachers getting the lowest rating over the current 3 percent, according to the Post-Gazette. (Just what that percent ought to be is a conceputal question with no firm answer.)

 Weingarten's decision is probably not really a spur-of-the-moment one. It's been bolstered by an increasing anti-testing sentiment within the union. In 2012, the AFT consequently passed a resolution opposing many uses of tests and began a media campaign to the same end. Last summer, it issued a report on overtesting.

There is a political element here, too: Factions within the AFT deeply critical of testing have gained power within the union, electing a president to the Chicago Teachers Union who subsequently staged a strike in the Windy City over issues of teacher evaluation.

Whatever Weingarten's new stance may bring for the national conversation about teacher evaluations, it is certainly not going to turn down the heat on this hugely controversial topic.

Follow along on Twitter at @Stephen_Sawchuk and @TeacherBeat.

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