a graphic ''seal of approval'' logo saying ''value-added'' on itIn this blog post, I’d like to talk about what they call ‘’value added’’ measures in school reform.  Basically, this means judging teachers according to the standardized test results that their students get over the course of the year.  First, let me say something about the term ‘’value added’’ because at first glance an unassuming parent or onlooker might get the feeling that something good is being injected into the system.  The term ‘’value added’’ is actually a corporate buzz word that basically means that you’re going to add two new vitamins to a breakfast cereal, or provide 50% more to a candy bar, or send out a ‘’free’’ newsletter to anyone who buys your book, or throw in undercoating on the purchase of a new car, or give away a pair of furry dice to anyone who gets a full service car wash.  You get the idea.

Mainly, it’s to make people think that they’re getting something for nothing, when, in fact, they’re either being charged more for the added value, or they’re being provided with something that will increase the chances that they’ll be roped back in for another purchase further on down the line.  Now, how does this apply to education?  What is the value that is being added to assessment?  Well, I’m just guessing here, but I would suppose that it’s getting a two-fer.  Not only are you assessing the students, but you also get to assess the teachers.  Bada-bing, bada-boom!   And for people who think in a corporate way, this makes sense.  I’m managing a factory.  I want to know if the workers on my assembly line are being productive; whether they are making the best use of their time.  So I hire a specialist to come in and assess them, and sure enough, I discover that a number of the workers are slow boats, and so I implement ways of motivating them to higher levels of productivity.

Sounds perfectly reasonable.  But then you go into the classroom, and first you have to ask the question, are classrooms like factories?  Are students like assembly line workers?  Well, I’m sure it feels that way to some students.  I remember when I was starting out as a special education teacher in a new district, and I wasn’t ”performing adequately” according to my supervisor, so as part of her own strategic plan to motivate me, she took me around to some ‘’model’’ classrooms.  In one of the rooms, students sat at their desks (station 1), completed a worksheet, took it to another desk (station 2) where a teacher’s assistant would correct it, then carried it to a filing area (station 3) where they stored it, then went to a special table (station 4), where they picked up a new worksheet, and finally proceeded back to their desks to start the cycle all over again (does the image of a rat on a treadmill occur to anyone?).

This resemblance of schoolwork to an assembly line is not just metaphorical.  The person who is perhaps most responsible for streamlining the modern manufacturing assembly line, Frederick Taylor, was instrumental in influencing how school administrators structured time, tests, and ‘’tasks’’ (teachers still use this archaic word to describe learning activities) in America’s public schools.[i]  So the assembly-line concept has been a crucial one in American education, and one that the schools are still using.

But a child is not a factory worker.  A child is a complex, unique, fascinating, unpredictable individual whose brain has evolved over millions of years.  And teachers are not factory foremen who can be evaluated by counting the number of widgets their workers have manufactured over a given period of time.  Yet this is the thinking behind ‘’value-added’’ assessments.

I want to raise a question.  Let’s say you’re a teacher and you know you’re going to be evaluated at least part of the time on the basis of the test scores that your students receive during the year.  These test results are going to have a huge influence on whether you get a raise, whether you achieve tenure, and even whether your going to keep your job.  What do you think would be the most intelligent response to this dilemma?  If you answered ‘’I’d quit’’ then you’re probably thinking like I am.  But if you answered ‘’teach to the test’’ then I’m going to assess your response as one hundred percent accurate.

The system of value-added assessment in education is tailor-made to force teachers away from the joy of learning, steer them clear of introducing students to the wonder of investigating new things, and ensure that anything that isn’t included on the high-stakes tests is going to be scrupulously avoided, even if it is fascinating, motivating, engrossing, absorbing, relevant to student’s lives, or compelling in any way whatsoever.

Is it any wonder that teachers don’t wish to function within this kind of straight-jacket environment?  Some teachers, of course, love this value-added system.  Everything is so clear.  You know what the tests are, you know that if students do well on the tests then your future is secure so you create a curriculum that takes those test items and blows them up into units, modules, lesson plans, and assignments, so that students are essentially doing nothing during the school day other than mastering the ”science” (and not, I emphasize, the art) of responding to each and every test item they are likely to encounter during the academic year.

The best strategy, of course, would be to just teach these test items over and over again until the students have over-learned them.  But this would be too transparent a strategy to pass public scrutiny.  It would give the game away.  So the trick is to disguise the test items as learning experiences and smuggle them in that way.

This, in fact is what some of American education’s most popular and highly regarded instructional approaches do.  Take Direct Instruction for example.   This method was originally developed by Sigfried Engelmann, a marketing director turned education professor who initially did research on children’s learning of advertising slogans and mottoes (that should tell you a lot right there).   Direct Instruction is education’s version of boot camp with teacher as drill sergeants and students as hapless recruits.  Teachers deliver the lessons, not from their hearts or creative minds or vast teaching experience of what works, but from a standardized script that all those using DI must use in a uniform way.  The teacher repeats a word or other finite unit of knowledge, and then makes a noise, such as hitting a clip-board with a stick, which signals the students to chorally respond with the same word or knowledge unit.   Again, the analogy with military boot camp cannot be avoided here.  It’s not all drill, there are some questions and answers, and other things that camouflage the drill with softer stuff, but essentially DI drills students on exactly those chunks of knowledge that they will be required to cough up during standardized testing time.  It isn’t any surprise, therefore, to learn that Direction Instruction usually outpaces other methods of instruction when they compete head-to-head in the giant sweepstakes of educational research.[ii]

This is, of course, a no brainer, since the benchmark of an instructional method’s efficacy is how it does in generating high test scores among the students who have been its guinea pigs, DI is almost by default going to be king of the hill in the big numbers game of high stakes testing.

But let’s go back to the typical teacher.  Is this something that you think will motivate the average teacher to excel?  If you ask a group of teachers to give you the prime reason they got into teaching, how many of them do you think would say:  ‘’To raise students’ test scores’’?  I’ve asked this question to hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers, and not one teacher has ever claimed this as their original motivation to be a teacher.

If I phrase the question differently, and say instead, ‘’how many of you got into teaching because you wanted to help children reach their full potential?” a sea of hands go up.  The real tragedy is that most teachers spend most of their time focusing on exactly the things that they did not get into teaching to bring about.  And now, to add insult to injury, their salaries and job security are being held in ransom depending upon whether or not they move a test score result up by a required amount.

Most of you reading this are not factory workers.  You may work in an office, provide a service or perhaps a wide range of services.  Imagine your boss hovering around your workplace with a clipboard in hand, rating you on a scale of 1 to 10 with respect to everything you do during the workday.  How motivated would you be to show up for work every day?  Might you begin to feel perhaps a bit resentful?  Well, indications are that American teachers are getting fed up with the way they are being treated, and they’re sick of being forced to work under conditions that undermine their deeper reasons for becoming a teacher.

The National Commission  on Teaching and America’s Future completed an eighteen-month study in 2007 concluding that there is a growing teacher dropout rate that is costing the country seven billion dollars a year.[iii] A more recent study suggested that 40 to 50 percent of teachers drop out of the profession within the first five years on the job.[iv]  And can you blame them?  What is there to hold them there?  It’s certainly not the promise of seeing the merry twinkling eyes of children learning something new.  More often its the glazed eyes of children overdosing on worksheets and standardized tests that is driving them away.


[i]See, for example, Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces That Have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools, Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press, 1962.

[ii]See, for example, ‘’Direct Instruction:  What the Research Says,’’ Education Consumers Foundation, November 28, 2011. http://www.education-consumers.org/DI_Research.pdf;  Paul Peterson, ‘’Eighth-Grade Students Learn More Through Direct Instruction,’’ Education Next, Summer, 2011, Vol. 11, No. 3.  http://educationnext.org/eighth-grade-students-learn-more-through-direct-instruction/.

[iii]‘’The High Cost of Teacher Turnover,’’ National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, Washington, D.C. 2007.  http://nctaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/NCTAF-Cost-of-Teacher-Turnover-2007-policy-brief.pdf

[iv]Richard M. Ingersoll, ‘’Beginning Teacher Induction:  What the Data Tells Us,’’ Phi Delta Kappan, May 2012, vol. 93 no. 8 47-51.

For more information about the mis-education taking place in America’s schools (and the solutions for doing things the right way), see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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