VAM BAM: Our National Obsession with Measuring Teacher Effectiveness

I wanted to highlight a blogger I just discovered who passionately discounts the value of value-added measurement (VAM) as used to determine teacher effectiveness, especially for those who teach English as a Second Language (ESL) students.  Her post got me thinking about the travesties I witness as a first year teacher, where teachers, students, and administrators alike are caught up in our national obsession with measuring achievement, student learning, and teacher effectiveness.  It appears the only beneficiaries of this obsession are those aligned with the standardized test industry such as test preparer and scorer Educational Testing Service (ETS); textbook publishers such as Prentice-Hall and Pearson; test preparation companies like Kaplan; education researchers and their universities; financial investors in education whether private, venture, or public; and etcetera.  The victims of this process are administrators, students, and of course, teachers.  For a witty cartoon related to my VAM BAM title, see VAM BAM SLAM WHAM.

As I continue my journey as a new teacher, truths such as those told by this elementary ESL teacher become clearer by the day, which make me question the reasons for so much of what is done in the name of competitiveness and equity in public education, especially as a result of “A Nation at Risk” and more recently, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  This is not to imply that competitiveness, equity, access, social justice or any other characteristic of a sound public education system are unimportant, for they are critically so, for our nation’s future and present.  At the same time, when the curricular, pedagogical, assessment,  and other dimensions of education are so narrowly constrained putatively to increase achievement, and hence, national educational competitiveness, we must step back and question both our ends and our means to the ends.  Are we truly more competitive as a result? Is this what equity offers?  And where is the justice to society when few outcomes change, yet increasing numbers of students and teachers alike are deemed unworthy of meeting societal needs or expectations?

As an example, policies that require every student to take algebra in eighth grade to ensure they have the greatest chance of attending college, while egalitarian, results in the unintended labeling of a hundred thousand students as failures, and if using VAM, thousands of teachers as ineffective.  The reasons so many students fail to learn algebra range from a student being unready developmentally, as recent advances in pre-frontal cortex research on cognition has revealed, to the concomitant challenges of poverty where a dearth of support resources and an overabundance of destructive environmental issues work to impede student learning.

See “Cracking the code: Why, how and when should students learn algebra?” for a summary of the pros and cons of all students learning algebra in eighth grade and “Not Ready for Algebra” for a discussion of the challenges with algebra for all.

As a first year algebra 1 teacher, I struggle with balancing the nearly unreasonable expectations placed on my students and myself alike, as embodied in content standards; federal, state, and local mandates; and the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTPs).  Many of these expectations cannot be successfully fulfilled in any sustainable basis given the current structure, roles, processes, and systems in public education, as compounded by the paucity of funding as measured per student.  Something must change significantly if we are to stay truly competitive as a nation: one where the majority of citizens feel as if they are not unduly challenged in attaining the American Dream, where they have a chance at bettering their lives, that of their family, and ideally community, and where our creative and pioneering spirit does not wane in the face of ever-increasing challenges to our way of life.

And believe it or not, teachers are not the sole determinant of whether we succeed as a nation or not, as much as so many pundits and politicos want you to believe.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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5 Responses to VAM BAM: Our National Obsession with Measuring Teacher Effectiveness

  1. Mike says:

    I have been dealing with some of the same issues. I am a first year math teacher and I have decided that the key is be realistic with myself. I can’t afford to get stressed out by the fact that students are not ready to or don’t want to learn. The fact is that there are a large number of students who are ready and eager. I need to enjoy providing them the best opportunity to learn that I can, and appreciate the occasional turnaround when a student decides that it is worthwhile to engage. But I need to filter out a lot of the pressure to make every student perform to the same standard. If I provide a safe and enriching atmosphere they will learn when they are ready.


  2. Thanks for highlighting my blog. It’s exciting to connect with a new teacher like you! I look forward to following your blog!


  3. Jack says:

    Yes, I agree with the madness around VAM, and my dissertation was on VAM! I know all of the pitfalls. I think the mania is attributable to a faction of the education community (policy makers, for one) who are enamored with the “certainty-like” quality that these numbers appear to provide. Adopting an economist’s lens as the main way to evaluate teachers for high stakes decisions further re-inforces the idea that teachers are producers of products, and that schools are factories.


  4. Pingback: What about algebra I in eighth grade? | Reflections of a First Year Math Teacher

  5. Pingback: Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance | Reflections of a First Year Math Teacher

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