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I’d Like to Thank Mr. Connelly, My First 10th Grade World History Teacher

Fortunately, he didn’t have to prove “value added” in order to keep his job

 

When I was in 10th grade I was placed into Mr. Connelly’s world history class. It was an average level class with average level students who more or less didn’t want to be in school, or specifically didn’t want to be in a history class. They had very little understanding of history or of how to study the subject. As a responsible teacher faced with students who have little background knowledge, Mr. Connelly didn’t just teach history, he taught history study skills like graphic organizers, time-lines and outlines, etc.

These were skills, however, that I did not need. I always loved history and devoured every source I could on World War II and, at that time, the history of Rome. I was bored out of my mind in Mr. Connelly’s class, doing very little learning and walking away with straight A’s. It didn’t take long for my teacher to realize that I was learning at a level to which he was not teaching. Therefore, he did what any exceptional teacher would and should do. He transferred me to an honors history class where I would be challenged appropriately.

Mr. Connelly wasn’t my teacher for very long, but his professionalism and his judgment may very well have had significant impact on who I am today in ways that cannot be quantified in the standard, value added manner. In Mr. Johnson’s class I not only accessed a more challenging curriculum, but also other students who thought like me and had similar interests and goals. I was able to refine my academic interests with my interpersonal interests as I was developing a sense of self. So, thank you, Mr. Connelly no less than Mr. Johnson who provided the actual learning experience.

This story makes me wonder what Mr. Connelly would do under Florida’s current “value added” model of teaching being pushed through the state legislature. Value added is an economic term that has come into vogue with regard to pedagogy. The merit of a teacher must be determined quantitatively and then acted on either by rewarding teachers who are successful at achieving an acceptable level of quantifiable learning, or by punishing a teacher who fails in this endeavor. The accepted method of quantifying value added among students, and thus determining the “value” of the teacher, is through test scores. According to Florida law, 50% of a teacher’s value is to be determined through test scores.

So let’s take a look at Mr. Connelly in such an environment that determines his value through quantitative test scores. Would it be in HIS best interest to move into another teacher’s class a student who will most likely improve his “value added” scores at the end of the year even if such an action is in the student’s best interest? Of course not. We could argue that holding onto a student who would be better served elsewhere is unprofessional. Indeed it is, but current laws regarding using tests as a reward and punishment system run contrary to any sense of professional ethics. In this case, the best interest of the student is not the only variable influencing the teacher’s decision. The best interest of the teacher, in this case, competes with his professional ethics.

Yes, Mr. Connelly may be a teacher, bound by professional ethics, but it is also likely that Mr. Connelly has a mortgage, a family, even children of his own. The pseudo-measurement of the teacher’s value added determines Mr. Connelly’s ability to meet his own personal and financial obligations and opportunities. Hell, the test scores may also determine his employment or professional status. He would be a fool to sacrifice his job, or even his own children’s well-being, by selflessly acting on the best interest of a student who would improve his own value added measure. If anything, he would want to get rid of students who are likely to test low.

So what we are seeing is the development of a role conflict between a teacher’s professional obligations to his students, and his personal obligations as a private citizen, homeowner or even parent. Exacerbating this role conflict is the fact that most of the variables associated with test scores are outside of the teacher’s control. Test scores are influenced by such factors as socio-economic status, cultural affiliation, nutritional access, parental education level, family stability, neighborhood dynamics, cultural diversity in the school and many other variables that the teacher cannot control. Yes, the quality of the teacher is the number one variable influencing academic success in school, but it is not the most influential variable over all (parental education level is much more influential).

So when you add social strain to role conflict, what could possibly go wrong? Well, at the very least we can expect that otherwise selfless teachers will become more self-interested. The theory among conservatives is that self-interest is the best possible motivation to secure the high quality outcome. In this case, however, self-interest is detrimental to students. Teachers like Mr. Connelly will actually suffer negative consequences for selflessly locating the best placement for their higher-level student. What’s more, the same predictions can be applied to the lower-level students. Students who consistently score less than proficient or non-proficient are simply not statistically likely to improve a teacher’s value added scores. With limited time resources, and high stakes consequences, the teacher would be better served to concentrate on those students who are borderline or intermediary test takers as they are the ones most likely to improve significantly with the right help. Higher-level students will be expected to improve largely on their own, which they will most certainly do. With some persuasion, the lower-level students might be pawned off to the special education department, their value added calculators muted or silenced. After all, the chances are that the lowest scoring students are those students most influenced by negative outside forces and are the least likely to make significant gains.

Whereas the above might be logical strategies that a teacher or even a school could use to improve scores, certainly one would not argue that they are effective teaching strategies. The teacher is ethically responsible for all students…but only accountable for those from whom they can demonstrate value added. Such a teacher would be defined as effective or even highly effective when looking at the value added scores despite the reality that the actual teaching is of low quality. One certainly could not blame a teacher for following this course when it means protecting his livelihood.

On the other hand, we might also expect to see an increase in more questionable tactics. We already hear about the reality of teachers “teaching to the test.” I have been present during staff meetings in which testing experts pointed out those areas on the FCAT that are worth the most points. Administrators were instrumental in developing strategies that emphasized developing strategies for concentrating on those high-point areas at the expense of other parts of the test that were not worth as much. This might be ethically questionable, but in light of a system that penalizes low test scores, costing teachers and schools money and jobs, ethics must take a back seat to practical contingency.

At the extreme, we can also expect to see more cheating. This cheating will be justified by the teacher or administrators perpetuating the con as the only means within the control of the institution to effect change. The ends of keeping a school open and securing hard to come by jobs and funds will justify the means of changing a few answers on a couple of tests. When people feel that they have no legitimate control over their own lives, they will find illegitimate means to achieve that control. Students justify their own cheating in much the same way. There is no reason to suspect that teachers are less inclined to cheat to keep their jobs than are students to keep from being grounded.

The current push for showing “value added” is creating this noxious climate. Value added may effectively improve test scores—such is the measure for success throughout the country. Despite the improved test scores, however, this policy will discourage teaching and produce less educated students. Destroying the selfless professionalism of teachers like my own Mr. Connelly by coercing and rewarding self-interest can only hurt education in the end.

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