VAM: Better Never than Late
Let’s talk about teachers for a moment. Some are great, some are decent, and some are better suited for another career. We knew this when we were students. We see it as parents. It’s even obvious to us sometimes as colleagues down the hall. The vast majority of teachers fit into the first two categories. Of that, we should be quite proud. Just the same, nearly all schools have someone who brings us all down.
If there were an instrument – a valid, reliable one that I believed could tell me numerically who my best teachers are – I’d use it in a heartbeat.
When I was teaching Honors English II classes in Mustang, most of my students could have passed their end-of-instruction exams before they even had one day with me. There was no standardized instrument suited either to measure their learning or my effectiveness. They were already hitting their heads on the ceiling of every test they had ever taken. Another test showing the same thing meant nothing to them.
As a teacher, I received great evaluations. Those also may or may not have meant anything. I can only remember two negative comments, both from my first year of teaching, when I was in Muskogee.
The first (from an assistant principal) was a question about whether or not I noticed a certain student chewing gum while I was teaching. Yes, I had noticed it. No, I didn’t want to interrupt the momentum of instruction to draw attention to it. By the end of the hour, I had forgotten about it. Yes, he got away with breaking a rule, but it wasn’t worth stopping and starting again.
The second (from the university professor on my entry-year committee) was a comment about finding something instructional for students to do when they finish an assignment because – wait for it – all they’re doing is reading. Claudia Swisher, I should have told you to turn away. Oh, the horror! Eighth graders reading, without anyone telling them to! I think his point was that I should have been teaching bell-to-bell. If it was something else, it was lost on me.
I think as a first year teacher, I had some very good moments. By the time I left the classroom, I think I was a very good teacher. I was never great, though. I didn’t have the years of experience (nine) or consistency to claim that. I loved it, but we’re not automatically good at the things we love. I love to sing in the car. I love basketball.
If you looked at my evaluations when I was in the classroom, though, you would have thought I was the very model of a modern master teacher. All of the check marks were in the far right column (the good side). Occasionally, I’d have a few encouraging comments like “try beginning class with an activity to engage prior knowledge.” Casually (not in writing), I would receive suggestions about classroom management or working with parents and colleagues – normal things that young teachers need to learn. Still, my evaluations would have all the check marks lined up in the right boxes.
That was the old teacher evaluation system. In 2011, the Legislature – acting in conjunction with then State Superintendent Janet Barresi – passed legislation creating the Oklahoma Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Evaluation System, or TLE. Even with later legislation amending it, the TLE law includes both qualitative and quantitative pieces. Since not all teachers give a state test, and since not all state tests are paired in ways that can show growth, two different quantitative measurements were created: Value Added Measures (VAM) and Other Academic Measures (OAM). The OAMs are no longer a thing. They have ceased to be. They are now ex-quantitative components.
Let me come back to VAM a few paragraphs from now. On the qualitative side, I have seen two of the evaluation models in action. When I was in Moore, we used the Tulsa Model. In Mid-Del, we use Marzano. I honestly have no preference. The language describing the different ranges of teachers is about the same.
With the way we used to do teacher evaluations, as with TLE, what really matters is how committed principals are to improving instruction. Do they have the resolve to have difficult conversations with teachers? Do they use the evaluation model with fidelity? Or, to borrow from Garrison Keillor, is the school the kind of place where “all the [teachers] are above average”?
We can have a well-researched qualitative teacher evaluation system, and we can make districts pay for training in the summer so that principals learn to calibrate their scores for teachers. It’s like shooting free throws in practice. When you have the pressure of giving a teacher a low score, even though you personally like that person, or even though his last 10 principals gave him a good evaluation, what will you do?
I’ve jumped in with both feet, and I know many other principals who have too. It’s not an easy thing to do, but at least you’re doing what seems right based on what you actually see. Then there’s VAM.
To date, no teacher in Oklahoma (that I know of) has had a VAM score added to his/her evaluation. No principal or superintendent I talk to has faith in them. It also sets up a two-track system for evaluating teachers – one for those with a VAM score, and one for those without. It’s inequitable on its face.
That is why I was less than enthused to see this in my email yesterday:
Value-Added Results Now Available
Value-added results demonstrating student academic growth during the 2014-15 school year are now available for teachers and administrators through the SSO2 portal. Guidance documents about how to access and distribute these reports can be found on the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness (TLE) page on the OSDE website.
If, by chance, I cared about VAM scores, I would probably want them sooner. Why would I attach scores that ostensibly show a teacher’s effectiveness last year to this year’s evaluation? Since I don’t care and I wouldn’t use them, we need them to go away. In Mid-Del, I don’t even know how many certified and support employees in my district spend how many hours preparing for the Roster Verification process. It’s all a waste of their time. Furthermore, the SDE spends over $600,000 on contracts with out-of-state vendors so we can verify who had this kid for what part of that month and how to calculate VAMs that nobody uses. Every penny of that is a waste of resources that continue to melt away.
One bill that we can still support to end this madness is HB 2957. In its current form:
- Districts would have the option to use quantitative measures in their evaluation process; but it would no longer be required;
- Teachers and administrators would develop a yearly individualized program of professional development;
- This would be a collaborative effort between the evaluator and the teacher/principal.
- The focus would be on components from the qualitative framework, but not necessarily on low areas;
- This is not intended to increase the amount of required PD hours, but rather to focus professional learning on areas that lead to higher student achievement;
- VAM would no longer be required by the state (and hopefully no longer purchased by it either); and
- Career teachers receiving a district rating of “highly effective” or “superior” would only need to be formally evaluated once every three years.
It passed the House by a vote of 94-0. It passed the Senate with amendments 46-0. Now the House needs to approve the changes and send it on to Governor Fallin. Easy, right?
Not this year. Nothing is easy this year. Nor is it logical.