A misguided obsession with computerized teacher evaluations

With the nation divided over common core and with parents opting children out of testing to protest its improper use, it’s worth pausing and considering why political obsession with computerized teacher ratings based upon student scores is bad policy and bad for students.

The teacher evaluation process in question is a complex statistical program known as a value-added model (VAM) or “growth scores.” The program was originally developed to study how to improve growth of agricultural seeds by analyzing the effects of fertilizer, sunlight, water and temperature. The problem is that children are much more complex than agricultural seeds, and rating teachers by a complex computer program designed to measure seed growth simply does not work.

In North Carolina, the value-added model used is called EVASS (Education Value-Added Assessment System), and it performs in the same manner, generating an expectation of how students should perform during the year and holding the teacher accountable for lower than expected student performance

A problem discovered as a result of the New York case Dr. Sheri Lederman v. John King Jr., N.Y. Commissioner of Education demonstrates why parents in North Carolina should think twice when politicians say they can use complex computer programs to identify and get rid of failing teachers.

One of Lederman’s fourth-grade students scored 98 on his standardized math tests, meaning he got two questions wrong on the three-day test. Instead of praising Lederman, my wife, for teaching a student who scored 98, the computer program labeled her as “ineffective,” with a “growth score” of 22 out of 100 because the student scored 100 on his third grade math test. This shows the danger of relying on complex computer programs that claim to be able to predict performance and rate people’s job performances.

Lederman decided to fight her “ineffective” growth score in court. She received perfect ratings from her principal based upon actual observations and went to court with a stack of affidavits from parents and former students saying that she was one of the finest educators they had ever met. Lederman’s research into how children learn has won awards.

Statistical consulting companies are making millions of dollars selling VAM programs to state education departments. These mega corporations seem to have convinced politicians that a computer program can accurately rate individual teachers. Issues influencing how children score on a single test on a single day are so complicated that undue and inflexible reliance upon growth scores does a real disservice to our children.

Politicians will claim they want to attract and keep good teachers, but using computerized teacher evaluations takes the humanity out of education, demoralizes teachers and is ultimately counterproductive.

The success of the opt-out movement in New York and elsewhere demonstrates that parents are realizing that increased reliance on testing for the purpose of rating and firing teachers is bad for children. Anxiety over testing is replacing love of learning. The opt-out movement is growing because the goal of good educational practices is being abandoned by politicians in favor of a witch hunt to find and fire allegedly bad teachers.

Politicians should reconsider the obsession with firing teachers based upon computerized ratings that are unreliable and irrational. It is bad for teachers and worse for our students.

Bruce H. Lederman is a member of the law firm D’Agostino, Levine, Landesman & Lederman, LLP, which is counsel for Dr. Sheri Lederman in an Article 78 proceeding to declare her growth score arbitrary and capricious.

This weekend

Dr. Sheri Lederman will speak about her case at the Network for Public Education’s conference in Raleigh. Find out more at networkforpubliceducation.org/.