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.