Value Add This

The New York Times beat everyone else to the punch by releasing the teacher data reports last night. The rest of the news outlets are sure to release them throughout the course of the rest of today.

No, I am not linking to them.

I have taught United States History for as long as I remember. My students generally do well on the U.S. History  Regents. Since I have been at my current school, my  students have had well above a 90%  pass rate every year. Two years ago 100% of my students passed the Regents with over 60% of them scoring 85 or higher.

Teachers like me who generally have students with high pass rates should be  just as outraged over what the DOE and the media are doing with this “value added” garbage as anyone else.

First, the U.S. History Regents is cake. The scoring rubric is so generous that an average  student has to literally try to fail it. Second, the test is usually given to 11th graders, who are more serious and mature than underclassmen. The ones at risk of dropping out have usually done so before the 11th grade.

The scores of my students do not reflect my quality as a teacher. When I used to teach 10th grade Global History, the Regents pass rates of my students were lower. Take me out of 11th grade and put me in front of a 10th grade class and my stats would take a hit.

It reminds me of the famous Casey Stengel line after he went from managing the championship-addicted New York Yankees to the hapless Mets, essentially moving him from first place to worst place. He said “I guess I got dumb in a hurry.”

Of course, he was making the point that a manager is not the deciding factor in the success of his team. He was also acknowledging that the media was going to blame him for the Mets’ failure regardless of that fact.

Fast forward 50 years and teachers have joined the Casey Stengel club. They are being publicly blamed for things over which they have little control.

This means that when value added data gets released for us high school teachers (and we know it will), my name will be there, probably with a favorable number next to it.

And that angers me.

I do not want people thinking I am a “good” teacher because some arbitrary number stands next to my name. It gives absolutely no indication of the type of teacher I am and what goes on in my classroom.

Sure, I cover the material that will be covered on the Regents. Admittedly, part of me does it out of fear for my own hide. More importantly, I do it because I acknowledge that I am in a system that requires students to pass this test in order to graduate. I feel it is my duty to help prepare them for the test so they can go on to get their diplomas. It is vital for their futures that I do this.

I could take a stand and say “screw this, I am going to teach the higher order stuff that I want to teach.” I can imagine doing that if it was part of a larger rebellion of teachers, students, parents and administrators aimed at bringing down the entire standardized testing regime. But if I were to make a unilateral decision to thumb my nose at the test and teach whatever the hell I wanted to teach, would I be doing this for the good of the students or to massage my own rebellious ego?

So I make my pact with the devil and try to help my students walk into that testing room with the knowledge to get through the test. But that does not mean that I do not exact a price for selling my soul in this way.

I take my pound of flesh and I do that by teaching whatever the hell I want to teach anyway. Once I felt confident enough in my craft, I have always tried to strike a balance between teaching to the test and teaching the good stuff. There is a way to do both at the same time. This way, I do not feel quite so dirty.

My students know me as the teacher that never uses the textbook. On day one I tell my students that they will receive a textbook but I doubt that we will ever use it (gotta keep your options open). Instead, I explain to them that they will get handouts , notes and homework  everyday. None of these things are particularly difficult. I was never one to load my students down with tons of work anyway. But if they keep all of these things in order (and I punch holes in everything I give them to help them stay organized), they will see that they are compiling their own textbooks over the course of the year. They can thumb through their history section and see maps, graphs, charts, pictures, readings, notes and homework. They will have a treasure trove of information by the end of the year to which they can always refer.

The best part is that most of the information comes from them. Their notes are points of class discussion that they bring up and that I write on the board. Sometimes they get to write it all on the board themselves. Their homework assignments are a series of thought questions that requires them to go through the day’s notes and handouts in order to synthesize different chunks of information and draw their own conclusions. This precludes them from having to read walls of boring paragraphs in textbooks that tend to kill any love they might have for history. For the average student, it should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. Students have come to me and said that they actually find the homework fun.

None of this is easy. All of the handouts ( I literally have hundreds) contain visuals or passages that I have chosen off of the internet, usually from a simple Google image search. I then write my own questions underneath them. My lesson plans have all the meaty information, including dates and vocabulary, that I wish to pull out of class discussions. What ends up going on the board as their notes is a compromise between what they say and what is in the lesson plan. They get a homework sheet at the start of every unit with all the assignments for the next two weeks or so. Again, I make all of the questions myself. If there are days when we do not cover some of the questions, my students know not to worry about it. We will get to it another time.

This does not even count the research papers or extra projects we do, which vary from year to year.

By doing things in this way, I do not feel quite as dirty. I can help my students prepare for the Regents while also turning them on to higher level historical analysis. The historical content they get is fuller and more accurate than the one-dimensional (and sometimes plain wrong) drivel that is found in history textbooks.  I am still trying to find the right balance between teaching to the test and teaching for actual historical appreciation, which is part of what makes teaching an art and not a science.

And this is the entire point. Teaching is an art. But the people who worship at the altar of value added and testing think everything can be broken down to a science. Like all sciences, real sciences that is, they think it can all be expressed in numbers.

At the core, this is what makes value added invalid. People keep talking about the wild “margins of error” for all the data the media is set to release today. This assumes that there is a model expressible in numbers that can have lower margins of error.

There will never be a value added formula without huge margins of error. It is a fool’s pursuit to try to find one. You simply cannot measure an art form in scientific terms.

The margin of error is so vast because value added is an error in and of itself.

This is the same problem with the new teacher evaluations. People are crowing about it, or at least saying it is not so bad, because it measures teachers in multiple ways. That is not the point. The point is that it promises to stuff all of these measures into a sausage of numbers.

You simply cannot put a number on an art form. This goes for the learning process as well. The whole concept of putting numbers on students in the form of grades is asinine, but that is another discussion entirely.

The value added craze and the teacher evaluation debacle merely reflect the true goal of education deformers, which is to take all of the art out of teaching. They do not care about the “achievement gap” or “failing schools” at all. They care about reducing teachers to automatons and piano keys.

This is why idiotic teachers like those over at Educators4Excellence applaud the new evaluation system. None of them ever saw teaching as an art. None of them stay in the profession long enough to get an appreciation for teaching as an art. There is nothing excellent about them aside from their own sense of self-importance.

None of the numbers that the newspapers published mean a damn thing. You cannot put a number on what teachers do, ever. The vast majority of teachers in NYC, whether with high value added or low value added stats, do what I described for myself. They stay up late making lessons. They reflect on their craft. They take the success of their students personally. They somehow find a balance between actual teaching and teaching to a test. They may not all do it in the same way, but that is what makes teaching such a great profession and such an art form.

But now, in New York City at least, the deformers have taken a giant step towards taking the art out of teaching.

This is what makes every teacher in New York City an assailed teacher.

16 responses to “Value Add This

  1. Wonderful Post. Teaching is an art, requiring experience, patience, trial and error, creativity, and intelligence.

    The reformers choose not to pay attention to that in an attempt to budget cut and find a profit via public education.

    Whether they be in politician, hedge fund, journalist, or faux-administrator form, they are dismissive of teachers, parents, and especially children.

  2. Pingback: Ed Notes Online: Defending the Art of Teaching: Assailed Teacher | Topaz Acting School

  3. To all of you teachers out there: When asked about the public release of NY Cities student-test based teacher evaluations, Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary, praised the effort, saying, “Silence is not an option.” Is this man, one who also praised the firing of the entire faculty of a Rhode Island high school, fit to lead the nation’s schools? Not in my book. It is time to fire him and make a number of other significant changes in the U.S. Department of Education. Go to, read the letter to Obama, sign it and pass this note on to all of your colleagues.

  4. thank you for the post.

  5. Just beautiful and eloquent. But we do need a way to minimize bias in evaluations and some measures to distinguish between teachers and provide assistance where necessary and appropriate.

    NYC HS math teacher

  6. Thank you for this post–beautifully said. We need to do more of this-completely reject the premise that what we do can be measured as data points.Check out this radio program that tries to do just that, and expose the so called education reformers:

  7. Christine Brigid

    I just don’t know that it has to be an either or– teaching as an art OR science. It seems that the push for evaluations and push-back against are once again creating polarities. Polarities are NOT good for the public school system– we can see this in every fight we have ever had: community schools vs. centralization, bilingual vs. English-only, etc. etc. How can we incorporate the kind of revisions into the teaching profession that every profession needs to have without creating scenarios in which ideology eventually wins out and hurts everyone?

    • I actually think it does have to be an either/or. This is not about a particular policy (i.e. bilingual v. English only), it is about the fundamental orientation of our profession. Teaching cannot be an art and a science, it is one or the other. Saying that teaching is an art is not anymore an ideology than saying that Leonardo da Vinci was an artist.

      I do not quite get what you mean “revisions that every profession needs to have.” Teaching is being “revised” all of the time. Thanks to the educational-industrial complex, there are new flavors of the month every two weeks. If professions needs “revision”, I am pretty sure trying to boil teaching down into numbers is not the way to do it.

      • But Leonardo was very keen on the investigating nature, playing with optical themes, geometry and perspective. You can take the Last Supper and reduce it to a perspectival and geometrical grid. I’m looking at one right now. It doesn’t capture the greatness of the painting, but it does help us understand why the painting is great. It is available for analysis:

        “Working on such a scale in a particular building, he clearly became acutely conscious of the problem of viewpoint…The problem, stated briefly, runs as follows. If the eye looks at a series of objects of equal size distributed at equal intervals along a plane perpendicular to our axis of vision (pl.81), the visual angles under which the objects and intervals are seen will progressively diminish at points toward the extremities. Thus the more remote objects will be seen as smaller” (Martin Kemp, The Science of Art, p. 49).

        If Leonardo did not think through such problems, his art would have been diminished.

        Dichotomizing art and science is not a natural order of things 🙂 It is so modern.

      • I totally agree. Dichotomizing between art and science is not a natural thing. Not to put words into your mouth, but it seems that you are asserting that Leonardo was something more than artist. Maybe a Renaissance man?


        But from the perspective of his times, what was he? For Europeans of that era who were working from a very Aristotelian mindset (despite their trappings of modernity, they were still very much Aristotelian) Leonardo’s entire life was art. The way he approached both his paintings and inventions was very much as an artist in that he was not constrained by convention, tradition or even the possible. Seeing as how science in that era was not a fully articulated field of study, inferring that he was a scientist is mere revisionism, in that we would be using our modern eyes to judge an historical figure.

        But I am seeing (and I could be wrong) that you are saying Leonardo was more than an artist. I might agree. I might also be willing to assert that he was the artist. Maybe it is six of one and half a dozen of the other.

        However, I did not want to get bogged down into a Leonardo dispute. It is a side issue. The point is education. When you discuss Leonardo, it is telling that you mention his paintings, geometry, nature, things that are not human. Teaching involves dealing directly with human beings. It involves human interaction. Like all social sciences, something is lost when you convert humanity into numbers (something is gained too, I will concede, just not in teaching). Education most of all is considered the weakest of the university social sciences. The reason is simple: education is not a science.

        Does this make me dichotomous? Not really. I like to think that “science” deals with a physical reality, that it can produce predictable results repeatable in a laboratory setting.

        Education does not take place in a laboratory. There is no way to control for variables like family dynamics, socioeconomic background and school environment. How could you even begin to do this?

        So teachers are left to deal with a real environment, a real world, with real human students. These things inform our teaching. Is there a science to this? Not in my mind. Taking a child’s mind and trying to lead it to see shards of the world in 45 minute chunks seems much more like the work of an artist.

  8. My former education professor, the wonderful Ted Sizer, said it best: “teaching is neither an art nor a science; it is a craft, which is a combination of the two.”

    The other great quotation that comes to mind is the one I heard Jonathan Kozol say: “You don’t fatten the lambs by weighing them.” Seems like a good way to sum up the problem with releasing the value-added data.

  9. Pingback: we told you so; or, the times fails to learn the lessons of history « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice

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