On Teacher Evaluations, Between Myth And Fact Lies Truth

Posted by on April 8, 2013

Controversial proposals for new teacher evaluation systems have generated a tremendous amount of misinformation. It has come from both “sides,” ranging from minor misunderstandings to gross inaccuracies. Ostensibly to address some of these misconceptions, the advocacy group Students First (SF) recently released a “myth/fact sheet” on evaluations.

Despite the need for oversimplification inherent in “myth/fact” sheets, the genre can be useful, especially about topics such as evaluation, about which there is much confusion. When advocacy groups produce them, however, the myths and facts sometimes take the form of “arguments we don’t like versus arguments we do like.”

This SF document falls into that trap. In fact, several of its claims are a little shocking. I would still like to discuss the sheet, not because I enjoy picking apart the work of others (I don’t), but rather because I think elements of both the “myths” and “facts” in this sheet could be recast as “dual myths” in a new sheet. That is, this document helps to illustrate how, in many of our most heated education debates, the polar opposite viewpoints that receive the most attention are often both incorrect, or at least severely overstated, and usually serve to preclude more productive, nuanced discussions.

Let’s take all four of SF’s “myth/fact” combinations in turn. Read More »


A Few Points About The Instability Of Value-Added Estimates

Posted by on January 17, 2013

One of the most frequent criticisms of value-added and other growth models is that they are “unstable” (or, more accurately, modestly stable). For instance, a teacher who is rated highly in one year might very well score toward the middle of the distribution – or even lower – in the next year (see here, here and here, or this accessible review).

Some of this year-to-year variation is “real.” A teacher might get better over the course of a year, or might have a personal problem that impedes their job performance. In addition, there could be changes in educational circumstances that are not captured by the models – e.g., a change in school leadership, new instructional policies, etc. However, a great deal of the the recorded variation is actually due to sampling error, or idiosyncrasies in student testing performance. In other words, there is a lot of “purely statistical” imprecision in any given year, and so the scores don’t always “match up” so well between years. As a result, value-added critics, including many teachers, argue that it’s not only unfair to use such error-prone measures for any decisions, but that it’s also bad policy, since we might reward or punish teachers based on estimates that could be completely different the next year.

The concerns underlying these arguments are well-founded (and, often, casually dismissed by supporters and policymakers). At the same time, however, there are a few points about the stability of value-added (or lack thereof) that are frequently ignored or downplayed in our public discourse. All of them are pretty basic and have been noted many times elsewhere, but it might be useful to discuss them very briefly. Three in particular stand out. Read More »


A Look At The Changes To D.C.’s Teacher Evaluation System

Posted by on August 22, 2012

D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) recently announced a few significant changes to its teacher evaluation system (called IMPACT), including the alteration of its test-based components, the creation of a new performance category (“developing”), and a few tweaks to the observational component (discussed below). These changes will be effective starting this year.

As with any new evaluation system, a period of adjustment and revision should be expected and encouraged (though it might be preferable if the first round of changes occurs during a phase-in period, prior to stakes becoming attached). Yet, despite all the attention given to the IMPACT system over the past few years, these new changes have not been discussed much beyond a few quick news articles.

I think that’s unfortunate: DCPS is an early adopter of the “new breed” of teacher evaluation policies being rolled out across the nation, and any adjustments to IMPACT’s design – presumably based on results and feedback – could provide valuable lessons for states and districts in earlier phases of the process.

Accordingly, I thought I would take a quick look at three of these changes. Read More »


Value-Added Versus Observations, Part Two: Validity

Posted by on April 18, 2012

In a previous post, I compared value-added (VA) and classroom observations in terms of reliability – the degree to which they are free of error and stable over repeated measurements. But even the most reliable measures aren’t useful unless they are valid – that is, unless they’re measuring what we want them to measure.

Arguments over the validity of teacher performance measures, especially value-added, dominate our discourse on evaluations. There are, in my view, three interrelated issues to keep in mind when discussing the validity of VA and observations. The first is definitional – in a research context, validity is less about a measure itself than the inferences one draws from it. The second point might follow from the first: The validity of VA and observations should be assessed in the context of how they’re being used.

Third and finally, given the difficulties in determining whether either measure is valid in and of itself, as well as the fact that so many states and districts are already moving ahead with new systems, the best approach at this point may be to judge validity in terms of whether the evaluations are improving outcomes. And, unfortunately, there is little indication that this is happening in most places. Read More »


Value-Added Versus Observations, Part One: Reliability

Posted by on April 12, 2012

Although most new teacher evaluations are still in various phases of pre-implementation, it’s safe to say that classroom observations and/or value-added (VA) scores will be the most heavily-weighted components toward teachers’ final scores, depending on whether teachers are in tested grades and subjects. One gets the general sense that many – perhaps most – teachers strongly prefer the former (observations, especially peer observations) over the latter (VA).

One of the most common arguments against VA is that the scores are error-prone and unstable over time – i.e., that they are unreliable. And it’s true that the scores fluctuate between years (also see here), with much of this instability due to measurement error, rather than “real” performance changes. On a related note, different model specifications and different tests can yield very different results for the same teacher/class.

These findings are very important, and often too casually dismissed by VA supporters, but the issue of reliability is, to varying degrees, endemic to all performance measurement. Actually, many of the standard reliability-based criticisms of value-added could also be leveled against observations. Since we cannot observe “true” teacher performance, it’s tough to say which is “better” or “worse,” despite the certainty with which both “sides” often present their respective cases. And, the fact that both entail some level of measurement error doesn’t by itself speak to whether they should be part of evaluations.*

Nevertheless, many states and districts have already made the choice to use both measures, and in these places, the existence of imprecision is less important than how to deal with it. Viewed from this perspective, VA and observations are in many respects more alike than different. Read More »


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