When the Obama-Duncan administration approaches teacher evaluation, the emphasis is on recognizing success. We heard that clearly in Arne Duncan’s comments on the release of teacher value-added modeling (VAM) data for LA Unified by the LA Times. He’s quoted as saying, “What’s there to hide? In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.” Since VAM is often thought of as a method for weeding out low performing teachers, Duncan’s statement referencing success casts the use of VAM in a more positive light. Therefore we want to raise the issue here: how do you know when you’ve found success? The general belief is that you’ll recognize it when you see it. But sorting through a multitude of variables is not a straightforward process, and that’s where research methods and statistical techniques can be useful. Below we illustrate how this plays out in teacher and in program evaluation.
As we report in our news story, Empirical is participating in the Gates Foundation project called Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). This project is known for its focus on value-added modeling (VAM) of teacher effectiveness. It is also known for having collected over 10,000 videos from over 2,500 teachers’ classrooms—an astounding accomplishment. Research partners from many top institutions hope to be able to identify the observable correlates for teachers whose students perform at high levels as well as for teachers whose students do not. (The MET project tested all the students with an “alternative assessment” in addition to using the conventional state achievement tests.) With this massive sample that includes both data about the students and videos of teachers, researchers can identify classroom practices that are consistently associated with student success. Empirical’s role in MET is to build a web-based tool that enables school system decision-makers to make use of the data to improve their own teacher evaluation processes. Thus they will be able to build on what’s been learned when conducting their own mini-studies aimed at improving their local observational evaluation methods.
When the MET project recently had its “leads” meeting in Washington DC, the assembled group of researchers, developers, school administrators, and union leaders were treated to an after-dinner speech and Q&A by Joanne Weiss. Joanne is now Arne Duncan’s chief of staff, after having directed the Race to the Top program (and before that was involved in many Silicon Valley educational innovations). The approach of the current administration to teacher evaluation—emphasizing that it is about recognizing success—carries over into program evaluation. This attitude was clear in Joanne’s presentation, in which she declared an intention to “shine a light on what is working.” The approach is part of their thinking about the reauthorization of ESEA, where more flexibility is given to local decision- makers to develop solutions, while the federal legislation is more about establishing achievement goals such as being the leader in college graduation.
Hand in hand with providing flexibility to find solutions, Joanne also spoke of the need to build “local capacity to identify and scale up effective programs.” We welcome the idea that school districts will be free to try out good ideas and identify those that work. This kind of cycle of continuous improvement is very different from the idea, incorporated in NCLB, that researchers will determine what works and disseminate these facts to the practitioners. Joanne spoke about continuous improvement, in the context of teachers and principals, where on a small scale it may be possible to recognize successful teachers and programs without research methodologies. While a teacher’s perception of student progress in the classroom may be aided by regular assessments, the determination of success seldom calls for research design. We advocate for a broader scope, and maintain that a cycle of continuous improvement is just as much needed at the district and state levels. At those levels, we are talking about identifying successful schools or successful programs where research and statistical techniques are needed to direct the light onto what is working. Building research capacity at the district and state level will be a necessary accompaniment to any plan to highlight successes. And, of course, research can’t be motivated purely by the desire to document the success of a program. We have to be equally willing to recognize failure. The administration will have to take seriously the local capacity building to achieve the hoped-for identification and scaling up of successful programs.