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Claudia Swisher: Value-Added Study is a Bait and Switch

This, my 36th year of teaching, has been one of turmoil for me -- not in my classroom or even my school. My students and I are having a great year, but every time I read the paper or watch television, I see the conversation about schools and teaching and learning be co-opted by non-educators, folks with lots of money and influence. Folks with little or no teaching experience. Suddenly teachers have become the reason for low test scores, low graduation rates, failing schools. Everyone has an answer to these problems, but no one's asked us teachers what we think. Through the year, I have read everything I can, and have shared books and articles and links and blogs with friends, some of them on Facebook.

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Ms. Swisher, having read your posts I have easily learned that you disagree with all of the education reforms that are being circulated to us non-teacher types. Being I'm endlessly curious and I know you have an opinion, I would like to hear your solutions to our current education problems?

I discovered this message from a former student early last week. It stopped me short. No one had ever asked me to explain what I did believe in as I ranted against nearly everything I saw in the media. No one had asked me what I thought about teacher evaluation and education policy.

He made me reach down and share what I would stand behind. I focused on teacher evaluations in my first response. I know the reformers believe test scores can correctly predict my effectiveness in the classroom; I knew it is much more complex than one test, one day. I told him I believed in teacher evaluation that was multi-faceted, and included self-reflection, goal-setting, observations, video-taping, as well as students and parent input. I would support a pre-and post-test of skills as a measure of what happened in my classroom. I believe my lesson and unit plans and my grade book should all be available and open to examination by my administrators. I told him I believe all evaluation should focus on helping teachers improve instruction, so students can learn. It all comes back to having a positive impact on my students.

The idea of student input is intriguing to me. I believe students do recognize effective teaching and not-so-effective teaching. I hope they have the maturity to identify in what ways their teachers help them learn and be successful in the classroom. I think students have much to share with us; in the past I've designed student feedback surveys but haven't created one that satisfies my need to know.

So, finding a recent article in the New York Times, "Students Know Good Teaching When They Get It, Survey Finds," I was elated. I read with interest of a survey used by the Gates Foundation 'Measures of Effective Teaching Project' that showed students can identify the elements of teacher behavior that help them learn. I withheld my skepticism about the Gates involvement, because this seemed to be exactly what I had said to my former student. I hoped I could replicate the survey in my classroom to help me identify areas of growth in my own practice. I posted that piece on Facebook, and my teacher friends and I have had a lively discussion. Others pointed out the subtle statements in the article about the survey being connected to value-added evaluation: tying student scores on a mandated annual test to teacher effectiveness. Rereading the article, my heart sank. There it was, the link between value-added and the survey. That wasn't what I hoped. My suspicions rose. I needed to know more.

I tracked down the study and read the eight-page document, a preliminary report. In the study, the student survey was only used to support the value-added finding, to show the teachers who were perceived as effective by students really had the higher test scores; the survey was not an equal component of a multi-faceted evaluation as I had hoped. This wasn't about student input; it was still about test scores. "...we wanted to know if students' perceptions of the learning environment in a teacher's classroom are consistent with the learning gains they experienced."

The study shared four preliminary findings. The first three were all about value-added evaluations and predicting future test results. There was acknowledgment that value-added evaluations fluctuate, but the study shrugged that off as not important enough to "...undercut the usefulness of value-added." The fourth finding was the only one I felt positive about; it was exactly what I'd said to my student : "Valid feedback need not be limited to test scores alone...it is possible to provide diagnostic, targeted feedback to teachers who are eager to improve (Emphasis mine)." What a back-handed slap at teachers. Are the authors of this study assuming we teachers are not eager to improve? I guess so.

By the time I'd gotten to the conclusion, I was reminded that the Gates Foundation is not necessarily a friend to teachers. The first sentence chilled me. "Teachers will need to open up their practice for review and constructive critique - because that's what excellence requires." Have I not done that for the 35 years I have taught? I don't need non-educators to tell me this. Later: "...we need to be humble about what we know and do not know." I found no sign of that humility in this report, just another way to repackage value-added evaluation, based on student test scores. Instead of inviting teachers to be partners in this study, it's apparent we're to be the subjects. Instead of that multi-faceted evaluation that could help me learn to be stronger, to affect my students' learning, to help us all strive for excellence, I got the same old thing: teachers must submit to the Gates Foundation's vision of school reform.

After finishing the report, I turned back to the first page. The research partners for the study? I didn't see any teachers - many of the names were affiliated with universities or testing companies. Key contributors also did not seem to be affiliated with school districts and schools. Where are the teachers? Why are we being left out of the discussion of our own profession?

My emotions fluctuated through this quest: from wariness to hopeful to suspicious to despairing. This is almost the classic bait-and-switch, and I fell for it. Now, I just feel fatigued. I'm tired of billionaires telling me they know more about my profession than I do.
So, I'm still searching for a student survey that will help me improve my practice. I still know I have much I can learn from my students.

Claudia Swisher a National Board Certified Teacher who's taught every level in public education, k-12, in three states, and seven schools. I have English Language Arts certification, Library Media certification. I'm a Reading Specialist. Her current assignment is teaching an English elective, Reading for Pleasure, at Norman North High School. She works with the National Board support program in Oklahoma, and is a Teacher Consultant with the National Writing Project. She is a fourth-generation teacher, and my son and daughter-in-law are the fifth generation.

What do you think? Does this new study shed any light on the validity of Value Added methods for identifying effective teaching? Or is this a bait and switch?

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