Home > Uncategorized > VAM: The Mathbabe Declares The Death of a Bad Idea… But I’m Not So Sure!

VAM: The Mathbabe Declares The Death of a Bad Idea… But I’m Not So Sure!

Cathy O’Neill, a.k.a the Mathbabe, is now writing a column on the use and misuse of statistics for Bloomberg News. Her latest piece for Bloomberg titled “Don’t Grade Teachers with a Bad Algorithm” opens with this heartening paragraph:

For more than a decade, a glitchy and unaccountable algorithm has been making life difficult for America’s teachers. The good news is that its reign of terror might finally be drawing to a close.

Ms. O’Neill then provides a concise history and analysis of VAM— an acronym for Value Added Model– one that has been offered in earlier posts on this blog but one that bears recounting:

The VAM — actually a family of algorithms — purports to determine how much “value” an individual teacher adds to a classroom. It goes by standardized test scores, and holds teachers accountable for what’s called student growth, which comes down to the difference between how well students performed on a test and how well a predictive model “expected” them to do.

Derived in the 1980s from agricultural crop models, VAM got a big boost from the education reform movements of presidents Bush and Obama. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act called for federal standards, and Obama’s Race To The Top Act offered states some $350 billion in federal funds in exchange for instituting formal teacher assessments. Many states went for VAM, sometimes with bonuses and firings attached to the results.

Ms. O’Neill describes the flaws in VAM, the major one of which was it’s opacity. One of her friends, who was Principal of a school in Brooklyn asked to get a copy of the algorithm when VAM was instituted in NYC and was dismissively told it was unavailable and, anyway, “it’s math, you wouldn’t understand it.” So a building administrator, who was held accountable for the VAM results in her school, was not let in on the way VAM was calculated.

She concluded her article by offering two pieces of evidence supporting her contention that VAM is dead:

Happily, the tide appears to be turning. In 2015, a revamp of No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, removed the federal funding incentives that had supported the algorithm. In May 2016, a Long Island teacher named Sheri Lederman won a lawsuit against New York State in which a judge deemed the state’s VAM-based rating system “arbitrary and capricious.” And earlier this month, a group of teachers in Houston, where VAM had been used for firings and bonuseswon a lawsuit in which they successfully argued that the algorithm’s secretive and complex nature had effectively denied them due process.

VAM expert Audrey Amrein-Beardsley told me that the Houston decision, pertaining to the country’s seventh-largest school district, might have a “snowball effect,” influencing the outcome of other lawsuits across the country. Let’s hope so, because teachers deserve better.

While I sincerely hope Ms. Amrein-Beardsley is correct in her forecast of a “snowball effect”, given the inability of politicians to drive a stake through the heart of the Gaffer Curve myth (see my next post), I’m not at all certain this bad idea is dead just yet. Yes, ESSA DOES eliminate the federal funding incentives that supported the VAM algorithm… but there are several states (including NH, the State I reside in) that are led by Governors and legislators who believe in “hard data” provided by standardized tests and love the idea that these tests can prove that public education is “failing”…. and those Governors and legislators will be loathe to abandon simplistic ideas like VAM that demonstrate that “failing teachers” are the ultimate cause of “failing schools”. VAM won’t die until the public is willing to face the facts on public schools… that more money is needed to help the schools that serve the children raised in poverty.

 

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