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Archive for 24. January 2015

A Game of Life and Death

With clear winners and losers…played every day!

If you answered, “the twelve year old boy, of course!” then you are pre-qualified for a position on the Cleveland Police Department.

On Oak Trees and High Stakes Testing

And selling what everyone knows to be a bad idea

I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now, but have been very busy. I finally have a moment to get my thoughts together.

Some time ago my school district showed us an interesting video and sent representatives around to explain the new Value Added Model (VAM) that they were using for assessing teachers. The goal, of course, was to sell this woefully inadequate system and to convince us not to worry about the inherent iniquities. Everything had been taken care of. The representative was very nice and cheerful, reassuring us that all factors were taken into account when applying VAM to our teacher reviews.

To break it down so that even we simple teachers can understand the megacomplex formula that was being used, the video and rep offered us an example of VAM scoring using an oak tree farmer as a metaphor.

An oak tree farmer? Really? It turns out that some tree farms really do sell oak trees. It’s unclear that they use a Value Added Model to evaluate their output.

Regardless, the VAM sales pitch was premised on looking at three oak tree farmers all growing oak trees under different conditions. One has ideal sun and water. The other has low water; the other has less sun—or some variation. Really, they lost me with oak tree farmer. The bottom line was that each was going to be judged based not on how much taller their oak trees grew, but rather on a comparison of how much an oak trees can be expected to grow given the various circumstance as compared to how much the oak trees grew with each individual farmer. So there. Don’t worry. It’s all perfectly fair and rational. Teachers working with kids under adverse conditions are not going to be measured against the expectations of those teachers working under ideal conditions. After all, that wouldn’t be fair. What we’ve done is gathered the demographic data, extrapolated the potential trend lines compared to sample populations, controlled for the various inputs and presto, a perfectly aligned and objective VAM score. See. Nothing to it.

Bless us and save us!

Look, no disrespect to oak tree farmers, but this sales pitch is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who is a teacher or who cares about teaching as a profession. News flash! Teaching kids is not raising oak trees! I’m sure raising oak trees has its challenges, but teaching is an infinitely more complex task not subject to simple metaphors.

If we were to make the metaphor work the rep would have to concede that there are multiple farmers involved in the growth of the oak tree. As a high school oak tree farmer on a block schedule I see my little seedlings two to three times a week for eighty three minutes at a stretch and fertilize their minds with American History. Other teachers are involved in tilling and cultivating their reading, math, language arts, science and other subjects. Then my oak trees go off and spend time with people who aren’t even farmers in various soils of differential quality before coming back to me. Then they will be tested on material that has nothing to do with the particular fertilizer that I am laying down.

Let alone the fact that our little oak trees come to us having been tended by hundreds of other farmers, with new farmers every year. Each oak tree has developed differential levels of aptitudes and interests, skill sets and values. Each oak tree has different goals, expectations and prospects. No two oak trees can be tended in exactly the same way.

Somehow, all of these complications were missing from the little animated video. There was one oak tree per farmer racing to grow a taller product. Easy peasy.

Which, of course, leads us to question the very validity of determining the value of an oak tree based on its height. The claim is that this is an objective measure, but upon examination it is subjective. How did the experts objectively determine that height was the best variable for determining the value of an oak tree?

How about breadth?

How about canopy?

How about width of the trunk?

Number of branches?

Acorn output?

Acorn quality?



Root span?

Number of squirrels?

Aesthetic quality?

Denseness of foliage?

I’ve seen many oak trees. Hell, I lived under oak trees for six years. Never once did I think, ‘wow, if this oak tree were just a little taller it would be a very valuable oak tree.’

The bottom line is that if determining the value added to an oak tree by a particular farmer is impossible, then what about doing the same for a human child or young adult? A model that, upon inspection, would not work for the relatively simple farmer/oak tree interaction is clearly inadequate for evaluating the Value Added by teachers.

Teaching isn’t a quantifiable process. It isn’t even a science. It is a craft. Part technical skill, part creativity. Part inspiration, part perspiration. The single greatest way to kill teaching as a profession is to try to quantify what teachers do, then hold them accountable for not doing more.

Of course, that’s the endgame.

No self-respecting oak tree farmer would submit to such a system.