In manufacturing, competition can work; it
stimulates invention and the search for efficiencies.
Engineers are good at coming up with more sophisticated robots and computer-controlled assembly
lines. But the service sector—which includes our
doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and yes,
teachers—is not so easily engineered. Some politicians find this difficult to understand and continue
to think of schools as factories.
If competition is such a panacea, then why don’t
politicians run a little experiment? Let them divide
the state legislature in two. Legislature A will take
one half of the state and Legislature B the other
half. We’ll wait nine months and then measure the
growth in the two halves’ economies, employment
rates, and student test scores. The legislature that
wins will take over the entire state, and the other
legislature can go home. An absurd way to run a
state, right? And an equally absurd way to run a
Competition is for widget makers, not for educators. Get rid of it.
MYTH 3. Merit pay is a good way
to increase the performance of teachers.
Teachers should be evaluated on the basis of
their students’ performance.
Scarcely any reform proposal gets as much attention
these days as the recommendation to reward or
punish teachers on the basis of their students’
progress on standardized tests. Value-added
measurement (VAM) is an idea whose time has
come, say the testing companies. It is an idea with
no valid basis in research, say scholars who have
studied the approach. The blog VAMboozled is
devoted to debunking the outrageous claims and bad
advice of the VAM proponents.
The rationale for VAM is so enticingly simple that
it appeals to countless average citizens whose only
experience with education is that they once went
through it. Give an achievement test to a teacher’s
students in September, and then give the test to the
same students in May and calculate the gain. The
teachers with big gains will receive bonuses or blue
ribbons or a round of applause at the end-of-year
assembly. The teachers with small gains or with
no gains at all could be fired or transferred—or
have their teaching certificates revoked.
This is hardly a way to treat a professional. And
therein hangs the tale. VAM is one of many moves
to deprofessionalize teaching. It joins Teach for
America, online teacher certification, and attacks
on teacher tenure as an attempt to demote teaching
from a profession to a semiskilled trade. Value-added
measures are unfair, untested, and unacceptable.
VAM violates equal protection. The majority of
K– 12 teachers teach subjects that are not covered by
the tests used to determine value-added ratings—
social studies, history, music, physical education,
art, biology, chemistry, and so on. (Of course,
testing companies would be more than happy to
create tests for all these subjects and administer and
score them—for a price.)
VAM also violates common sense in two ways.
First, because students move, drop courses, or
switch courses, some teachers lose 2 students out
of 30 during a school year, and other teachers
lose more than half their class. Statisticians use
complicated formulas to try to take variations like
this movement into proper account, but they fail
(American Statistical Association, 2014).
Second, VAM holds teachers accountable for
student learning—yet we don’t hold anyone else
accountable for another person’s behavior. Physicians, parents, and university professors are held
responsible for acting ethically; doing their jobs to
the best of their ability; and responding sensibly to
the needs of their patients, children, or students.
But they are not ultimately responsible for the poor
health of their patients who make unhealthy lifestyle
“The performance of virtual academies is so pathetic that
the charter school movement
is trying to dissociate itself
from its online cousins.