By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
A recent post discussed the controversial firing of a highly praised second year teacher in Washington DC who was the victim of that system’s value-added evaluation process. Sarah Wysocki, the teacher featured in the story, was terminated after her second year because her students did not reach the levels prescribed by a complicated mathematical formula devised to measure the expected improvement on standardized tests. Her classes scored a 54.2 on reading which fell short of the value-added prediction of 59. Likewise their math scores were similarly lacking according to the school district’s calculations. Her 3.2 average on the 4.0 scale used for classroom observations notwithstanding, Ms. Wysocki was fired.
Hall of Fame or unemployment line
This story prompted a former math colleague Bill Horkan to offer his perspective on such a process. His focus was on former National Football League (NFL) head coach Joe Gibbs. During a twelve-year stint with the Washington Redskins Gibbs, who is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, guided his team to three Super Bowl victories in four appearances. In addition he was the only coach to win threechampionships with three different quarterbacks. This stellar career led Bill to the following conclusion:
“Let’s check out the value added score of Joe Gibbs. If one were to study his record during his first tenure with Washington in terms of value added it would look like this:
Record/ Value Added
1981 8 – 8 4th in NFC/Negative (previous year the team was 3rd)
1982 8 – 1 Won Super Bowl (SB)/Positive
1983 14-2 Lost SB/Negative (lower winning % and lost SB)
1984 12-4 Lost Division Championship/Negative (lower % and no SB)
1985 10-6 Did not make playoffs/Negative (lower % and no playoff)
“By this time, if he was judged in a manner similar to a teacher in DC he would have been fired (3 consecutive Negative Value Added results in a row and 4 out of 5,) for clearly being an ineffective coach.”
Bill further noted that in Gibbs next seven seasons, despite winning two additional Super Bowls and having winning records in six, the value added for the coach would have been a mediocre four positive and three negative.
Not everything can be assessed by a number
Decisions are always simpler when they can be quantified. If two items are identical except one has a lower price it is easy to determine the better deal. On a street with a speed limit of 50, driving at 55 mph is too fast. The purchase of a dress is predicated on a specific size and price. But even in those examples often a singular number is insufficient. In a snowstorm driving 45 mph may be problematic. In acquiring an item of clothing in addition to fit or cost a buyer must determine if it is appropriate for the occasion, flattering and the right color and style. Though they are critical to the decision making process none of these attributes are quantifiable. In sports there is a similar dichotomy. With a few calculator keystrokes batting averages, winning percentages, yards gain, and points per game can be determined. Potential NFL draftees are evaluated by their height, weight, speed, strength and vertical leap.
And yet in the upcoming NFL draft regardless of how scientifically the various measurements are taken, some “can’t miss” prospects will fail while future stars will go undrafted. The simple reality is that there are certain qualities that cannot be quantified. What numbers can be attached to leadership, commitment, creativity and unselfishness? As illustrated in the case of Joe Gibbs, his vast talents were undeniable even if his value added performance, like Ms. Wysocki, was skewed toward the negative.
The easy way is not always the best
The education community appears determined to find a method to measure the work of teachers with a number. Though every evaluation during her second year of teaching indicated that Ms. Wysocki was an effective teacher, two numbers 54.2 and 59 were deemed conclusive. Such a process may not be accurate but it is certainly easier. In lieu of studying page after page of subjective observational information, the fact that 54.2 is less than 59 made the termination process of Ms. Wysocki simple and impersonal. Ironically, this approach to a critical judgment runs counter to many of the most important life decisions. Is there a two-digit value added number that ensures a surgeon is right for the patient? Choosing a partner, a presidential candidate or even a color scheme is not attached to a specific score. Strict adherence to this method would have prematurely ended the Joe Gibbs era in Washington.
Accurately and fairly assessing the work of a teacher requires removing the assistant principals from the processes and hiring highly trained, professional educators whose sole responsibility is to evaluate individuals throughout the system. These evaluators need to be given the resources to be thorough and the authority to make critical personnel decisions. Data should be utilized as a component of their work though not as the final arbitrator. Their findings should be written in language that is clear and precise. These words should reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the person being observed along with concrete methods for improvement. No two-digit value can meet those criteria.