Why VAM is a Scam

I could use this blog post to cite numerous studies by mathematicians and statisticians that refute the validity and reliability of value added models used to rate teacher effectiveness. Not today.  Today I don’t feel like fighting data with data. I’m a history teacher. I would like to take this opportunity to interject a little humanity into the debate over VAMs.

Algorithms, the gypsy fortune-tellers of the 21st century, these predictions will cost you more than five dollars at the county fair.  The state of Florida paid $4 million for the value added model used to rank teachers based on whether their students’ test scores fell short or exceeded predicted levels of growth.  The Florida VAM bans race and poverty from being included as variables that impact student learning.  The New York VAM includes race and poverty in their set of variables. The fact that Florida and New York use different variables to predict student growth should be enough evidence to prove that value added models are far from scientific.   When variables in math equations are decided by politicians, instead of by scientific research, we have a problem.

Allow me to express a little cynicism that science and math can accurately foretell the fate of our lives, from everything to student test scores to whom we should date on Match.com.  Until there is an algorithm that can predict which one of my students will have a parent who is too strung out on drugs to fill the refrigerator with food and make sure their child wakes up to go to school, I’m not buying it. Until there is an algorithm that can measure the impact on a student who’s parent is in jail, is sick with cancer, has lost a job or a home, or is going through a divorce, I’m not buying it. Until there is an algorithm that knows which one of my students is suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a drunken stepfather, no sale.   These are clearly factors that impact student learning, but because they are beyond the realm of the quantitative world in which education policy makers obsess, they are ignored.

I need to take a moment to speak a little sacrilege.  I actually don’t care if my students score a 1 or 5 on the state standardized exam.  I believe that “all students can achieve” but for me, it’s an achievement that some students show up for class at all.  I want to freak out on my students because they show up tardy, they’re not wearing the uniform, they didn’t bring paper or pen to school, they don’t have their essay and then one of them tells me they spent all night in the emergency room because their father had a heart attack.  It makes me want to crawl under my teacher desk for a moment and hide from the cruel universe that I cannot protect my students from.

For some of my students who are dealing with life experiences dealt by a merciless slot machine, the mere fact that they bothered to show up for my class makes me feel like I hit the jackpot.  I applaud them for sitting through a lesson that for them has no meaning, showing me respect and an occasional smile in the face of adversity.  Dear student, I hope I have added some value to your life.  I hope that my classroom has given you a 90 minute respite from your disturbing reality.   Perhaps I have given you a safe environment that enables you to laugh and learn and be a kid, if only for a little while.

I will continue to be a good teacher trooper that injects rigor into my lessons even if my students are too distracted by visions of their mothers injecting drugs to learn.  I promise to incorporate common core standards even though my students may be too concerned over a parent who is incarcerated to concentrate.  I will dive into my students’ data only to find out when I ask a student why they got a 1 on the state exam it was because their grandmother died that morning.  Life is filled with unpredictable variables that even the most expensive algorithms cannot control.  As a teacher I know this.  As a teacher, I want to value the smiles, hugs, tears and laughter my students have added to my life.  The state may view them as a x-22 or a y+6, but to me they are so much more.  Dear bureaucrat, please step inside a classroom again.  Come down from your acropolis of data, and remember what it is to be human.