Monday, December 28, 2009

Value-added education in the race to the top

David Davenport | SF Gate
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bill Clinton may have invented triangulation - the art of finding a "third way" out of a policy dilemma - but U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is practicing it to make desperately needed improvements in K-12 education. Unfortunately, his promotion of value-added education through "Race to the Top" grants to states could be thrown under the bus by powerful teachers' unions that view reforms more for how they affect pay and job security than whether they improve student learning.

The traditional view of education holds that it is more process than product. Educators design a process, hire teachers and administrators to run it, put students through it and consider it a success. The focus is on the inputs - how much can we spend, what curriculum shall we use, what class size is best - with very little on measuring outputs, whether students actually learn. The popular surveys of America's best schools and colleges reinforce this, measuring resources and reputation, not results. As they say, Harvard University has good graduates because it admits strong applicants, not necessarily because of what happens in the educational process.

In the last decade, the federal No Child Left Behind program has ushered in a new era of testing and accountability, seeking to shift the focus to outcomes. But this more businesslike approach does not always fit a people-centered field such as education. Some students test well, and others do not. Some schools serve a disproportionately high number of students who are not well prepared. Even in good schools, a system driven by testing and accountability incentivizes teaching to the test, neglecting other important and interesting ways to engage and educate students. As a result, policymakers and educators have been ambivalent, at best, about the No Child Left Behind regime.

An interesting middle ground has emerged: value-added education. In this approach, already employed in several states, the focus is on how much learning each student does each year. Testing is still done, but it is for the purpose of measuring annual gains by individual students. After all, isn't that what any people-servicing profession should seek to do: improve the lot of the patient, client or student?

The controversy develops because the value-added approach reveals which schools and teachers are doing the best job of improving student learning. The unions are stirred up about this because, as Secretary Duncan has said, currently "zero percent (of teacher evaluation) is based on student achievement." But, of course, that is part of the problem, that we have tolerated a system that does not measure and reward teacher performance.

Education expert Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution has estimated that merely replacing the nation's worst 6 to 10 percent of teachers with average teachers would make a huge difference in the quality of American education. Value-added testing would begin to allow such judgments to be made, which is why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed two bills making value-added data available for teacher and school evaluation and qualifying California for some of the $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" federal grants.

Let's face it - the time to do nothing about our declining schools has passed. Value-added education offers a path out of the old process versus testing and accountability dilemma. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: We've come to a fork in the road, let's take it.

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