Kafkateach decided to come out of retirement for one final soliloquy on VAM. In a world where the nightly news features Kayne West visiting President elect Trump at White House North, the absurd has become the new normal and even the nonsense world of Florida’s educational system seems almost rational in the face of national news.
It’s been a rough couple of years for Kafkateach and now standing at the precipice of economic ruin while simultaneously being denied the $10,000 Best and Brightest bonus based on VAM, it was time to attend another School Board meeting despite the recommendations of a former high level district official who, funny enough, happens to be a fan of the Kafkateach blog.
Oh, well, there goes any delusion I had left of keeping this blog anonymous. Somewhere in my mind I had comforted myself thinking this little subversive blog would never be read by anyone working for the district, and they would never be able to find out who I was if I used a pseudonym. In the name of the holiday spirit and thankful that the district has never attempted to fire my blogging behind, I decided to modify my speech about VAM from naughty to nice. Well, not exactly nice, but not specifically disparaging of my school district either. Instead, I turned my speech to a rant against VAM in the broadest sense.
This was probably for the best because the fight against VAM is not just about me, or my school district, or even the state of Florida. It’s really a broader fight against education policy makers, and those who implement those policies. The people who have never stepped foot in a classroom, who never will step foot in a classroom, and who have clear disdain and indifference towards those teachers and students who they hold accountable all the while depriving them of resources in order to justify their utter uselessness in the real job of educating children.
In the past I have tried to transcribe School Board meetings while simultaneously making them entertaining. That will not be possible in this blog post because this was the mother of all epically long and boring School Board meetings. You people owe me for sitting through four hours of that Chinese water torture just so I could rant about VAM for three minutes on public airwaves. To make matters worse, in the most wired school district in the history of the world, I could not get an Internet connection in the School Board auditorium. Note to self, if I am ever crazy enough to sign up to speak at another School Board meeting, bring a hot spot! After making it through my pile of essays to grade, I started having a panic attack when I couldn’t get on a wireless network and realized I would actually have to sit there and listen to one item after the next on the seemingly endless agenda without any distractions to keep my sanity. I began to feel like a trapped animal in the cramped seats and periodically went to the bathroom to calm my inner urgings to flee. I would have done laps around the block to kill the time but I really can’t afford to get mugged right now.
It was a war of attrition. They must have been hoping by creating the world’s longest School Board meeting, Kafkateach would give up and go home. It almost worked. Thankfully, the 50 bus drivers they signed up to express their gratitude for being thanked didn’t all show up. One woman even declared that sometimes appreciation was better than a paycheck. I beg to differ. You can keep your mass generated holiday email greeting and send me a big fat check in the mail instead.
At least UTD did their part to keep the meeting short. The President of UTD’s speech was so short I completely missed it when I glanced down at my cell phone to check a text. I would have thought the week after the Miami Herald ran a major story about teacher frustration over their evaluations and VAM, the UTD President might just make it a point to address the issue of teachers losing hundreds to thousands of dollars, and possibly their jobs over these bogus evaluations to the Board. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article119791683.html
I would have thought wrong as UTD leadership never fails to disappoint. But I must say that the President’s wardrobe has definitely gotten an upgrade since she started making the big bucks. You wear six figures well honey.
Speaking of fashion, they must have been having a School Board holiday party after the meeting because all of the women were wearing red with sparkly necklaces, including Kafkateach. The Divine Miss P looked like she may have gotten into the eggnog a little prematurely because I was seriously worried she wasn’t going to make it through the meeting. This woman has definitely sat through one too many School Board meetings. Major props to all the School Board members for being able to sit through 12 hour meetings with hot lights and cameras on your every move.
As the meeting dragged on and on and on, I began to get hangrier and hangrier. As my hanger grew, I became more and more tempted to give the naughty version of my speech. Then at 6:40, ten minutes past the legal limit, the School Board meeting concluded and the public speaker session began. I was hoping for a good showing of teacher speakers to voice their concerns over VAM after reading a deluge of disgruntlement on Facebook, but in typical flaky teacher fashion, it was only me and a teacher I had met over the summer who signed up to speak about VAM. Ironically, I only knew this other teacher because we had both been recruited to present the merits of a district wide Learning Management System to the Superintendent over the summer. My career as a Miami Dade teacher and education blogger has always been filled with synchronicitous moments and this was just another example of that. Over the summer she expressed her dismay over being denied the Best and Brightest bonus because she didn’t get credit for her Freshmen who passed the AP Human Geography exam because they didn’t have PSAT scores. This didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but when I got a shockingly low VAM, I found out the hard way how important PSAT scores are for AP teachers. I was thankful that at least one other teacher had cared enough about the injustice of VAM to show up to speak. It gave me warm fuzzies and a little more street cred to have another accomplished teacher by my side who had been slammed by VAM.
Finally they called me up to speak, mispronouncing my name three times, but I’m used to that. As I started my VAM rant, I couldn’t help but be particularly perturbed at the lady in red to my left who was talking rather loudly right next to me at the podium while I was trying to give my speech. I had to stop myself from having a off duty teacher arrest moment where I reprimand an adult for their inappropriate behavior. I mean, what teacher amongst us hasn’t scolded someone at the grocery score express lane for having 11 items instead of 10? I proceeded to read the following speech:
“Good afternoon. I am here today to address the issue of VAM based teacher evaluations. I may not have a PhD in statistics, but I have been reading the works of leading statisticians regarding the misuse of VAM since it entered my lexicon 6 years ago. Stephen Caldas, the former head pyschometrician of Louisiana’s Department of Education, in an article titled “Value Added: the Emperor Has No Clothes” calls VAM a “pyschometric monster” and argues that all value added models designed to evaluate teachers are “pyschometricly unjustifiable”. Caldas notes that VAM’s complexity, its huge margin of error, and the fact that it really measures correlation, not causation, as reasons for not using VAM.
He goes on to state, “To claim that value added models are valid for predicting any individual’s achievement would be like predicting that a specific person is likely to commit terrorism because he or she belongs to some particular religion—justifying the prediction with the fact that there’s a correlation between that faith and committing a terrorist act. ”
The American Statistical Association has come out against VAM and in a victory for all teachers, Sheri Lederman won her lawsuit against VAM in NY State. A legal precedent has been set.
Voodoo algorithms and what most teachers refer to as “Very Arbitrary Measures” of our effectiveness resulted in my loss of the $10,000 Best & Brightest bonus because my VAM score rated me “unsatisfactory” in learner progress even though my AP pass rate was only 2% lower than the district average despite embracing the College Board’s open enrollment policy and having students with low grades sit for the exam.
This year I learned that my students’ PSAT scores were used as predictors of performance on AP exams. PSAT scores do not measure a student’s effort, interest, or academic growth. I do that. I can easily predict which students will pass the AP exam based on their grade. I have never been the type of teacher to put my professional interests ahead of my students’ academic and emotional interests. Unfortunately, due to the unrealistically high expectations imposed on AP teachers, I can no longer afford to place my student’s interests ahead of my own. In the world of VAM based teacher evaluations, my students are not more than a test score. They are now PSAT scores. They are a probability, and potentially a liability.
I love my students but the system stinks. It is time to end the tyranny of the data czars who inflict terror with their esoteric, top secret, ever changing formulas which do nothing but stigmatize and demoralize an overworked and underpaid workforce while they reap benefits at the expense of turning teachers and students into digitized widgets whose behavior is supposed to conform to some correlated norm. VAM is a sham. We will fight against it until we end it and put the humanity back into the teaching profession. ”
It may not have been the storming of the Bastille moment I had been hoping for, but it felt good to get it off my chest and on the public record. I’ve debated putting this speech on youtube because I am a much better writer than public speaker and I don’t want to be embarrassed by single digit viewership. Maybe if I videotaped myself reading this speech wearing nothing but a bikini (at this mature age a sensible one piece with a strategically placed sarong would be more appropriate) with snoring pug puppies and a slideshow of the Elf on the Shelf in sexually suggestive poses playing in the background, I might become an Internet sensation. But I refuse to reduce myself to Christmas Elf porn in order to get people to listen to my VAM speech. Since I no longer have anonymity in writing this blog and after 40, who really gives a hoot what anybody else has to say about you, here is the link to my speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBSf2SJ9JNw&t=75s
Highlights from the public speaker session included a former ESE teacher who resigned because she was disgusted by how the district treats its ESE population and the mother daughter duo who always have something good to say. This time they exposed the imposition of the I-Ready computer based reading program. As I parent, I hate the I-Ready program. How am I supposed to finish writing this blog post when I have two kids that are constantly nagging me to get on the computer so they can finish their nightly 30 minute I-Ready homework on top of the ten worksheets they already completed?
Finally, it was my VAM slammed AP colleague’s turn to speak. She began:
“I am very dissatisfied with my VAM score. Since the district model based the expected performance on the PSAT, and 24 of my Freshmen didn’t take the PSAT because they had to pay for it, my outcome was 0.04 and my students average performance 63.6%. If all of my students’ AP scores were included my average performance would be 72.3%.If you counted all of my scores than my VAM ratio would have given me the 35 VAM points I needed to be rated Highly Effective and qualify for Best and Brightest. I only missed it by 0.05 points.
I believe the VAM was discriminatory against teachers like myself who teach an AP class offered to freshman. I trust the district will rectify this matter for me because I really love teaching AP Human Geography and I don’t want to feel like I shouldn’t because of a VAM ratio that is working against me. I only want to receive the score I earned as an AP teacher. This model needs to be talked about. If I taught world history honors I would be HE. $7,000 I did not get because of the VAM. I’m discouraged. I don’t want to teach AP. This is something that needs to be discussed. Many teachers like myself were hurt.”
It should be noted that this is what happened to my colleague the previous year. Despite writing emails to top district officials about their problematic VAM model for AP teachers, nothing was done to rectify the situation. The same situation occurred again this year and AP teachers like myself and others lost thousands of dollars due to a faulty model.
The newest edition to the School Board, who’s name I don’t know but even if I did I wouldn’t use it here, began to respond to my colleague’s concern with his smooth voice and his smooth language.
Mr. Smooth: “The notion of VAM has continued to resonate. There is a clear degree of unfairness. There is a great degree of ambiguity on how the VAM score is derived. As the stakes get higher, it’s getting real: compensation, evaluation, termination and career advancement. I would like a response now or in writing. This is the second speaker on this.”
The Superintendent began his response:
“This is an extremely complex issue. We will continue to hear about this issue. We have the perfect storm as a result of state legislation SB736 which mandates student data be used to drive a certain percentage of a teacher’s evaluation. The second issue is Best and Brightest. Do we believe that is the best way of rewarding teachers when qualifying data that precedes that teacher’s performance? And then there is the issue of VAM. Four years ago I asked my staff to sit with me and explain the Florida VAM model. I got through it. If we do not understand it, we do not embrace it. It is far too complex and excludes factors that are proven to impact the classroom. For example, it does not count students on free and reduced lunch even though other states include those. The speaker is absolutely right. You’re talking about a subject area, the state never imagined this without clearly understanding how real life really works. I only scratched the tip of the iceberg. The state has improved. There was a time where teachers where being evaluated on teachers they never saw. It impacts a small percentage of teachers. We may have some success at the local level to mitigate its effects. A lot of this is negotiated. The reliance on data that aren’t available based on their grade. I taught AP before VAM. It was hard enough before VAM without the added pressure. It has become a liability.”
Another new addition to the School Board, a woman in a festive green dress and cute flipped blonde hairdo commented:
“I have spoken to countless number of teachers who are having an extremely hard time understanding their VAM. Teachers giving 150% and not getting the results they deserve. Principals need further training.”
The Superintendent responded:
“Even individuals in advanced training in statistics would have a hard time explaining the formal. It’s exceedingly difficult without a high level of training. By design the VAM lacks certain factors. When this discussion first started state wide, I was a strong opponent of the complexity, lack of transparency in terms of logistics, legitimacy and honesty. It’s very difficult to explain. Once you see the formula you will understand what we mean. The state itself cannot explain it. It will cause more confusion trying to explain it.”
That was an excellent response by the Superintendent. My administrators would kill me if they had to sit through some PD hell session titled “Sensitivity Training for Delivering Employee VAMs: How to Explain the Inexplicable” as a result of my speech.
The Superintendent continued:
“VAM has a demoralizing impact if teachers don’t understand how they received their score. It’s hard to be reassuring. Each year we’ve sat with the union, we’ve been very lenient, we could use it to a great latitude but because of our concern we try to keep the impact as low as possible. We hope will be further refined.”
The Lady in Green: “We hear from you, we feel for you, but some things are beyond our control.”
The New School Board Chair interjected: Understanding the complexity will not help the unfairness. Is there anything we can do legally or legislatively?
The Superintendent responded:
“SB 736 has been litigated on the basis of this issue. The courts have sided with the Department of Education and the legislator. We can continue to bring these issues. I don’t see this being modified. We can soften the impact of the formula and have the appropriate conversations. Even as I’m saying this, my mouth proceeds my mind. If we know it’s flawed, why do we have to keep doing it?
(Kafkateach interjection, EXACTLY! How can we keep up this charade and penalize educators when nobody believes in the validity of VAM? Even the people who design the models know they have issues. When I had a telephone conference with the Office of Assessment, Research and Data, the district’s lead statistician admitted that there were flaws in the model for AP teachers).
Mr. Smooth continued to advocate for teachers and against VAM:
“There are two ways to be explored. Legislatively and legally. Initially VAM addressed 50%, now it’s 33%, the superintendent referenced collective bargaining as a way to mitigate the impact at the local level. This is a national issue. There’s a big national case in Houston and looks like it’s going to prevail. We have two critical pathways, one at the state level as well as latitude at local level.”
The Superintendent added: “As a public service announcement to our teachers there is an FAQ on the portal that attempts to explain the questions. I am a man of average intelligence. I struggle with understanding the value added formula. Read the document. We can try to be more successful explaining something that is inexplicable.”
The Lady in Green: “They are cognizant but it is difficult to understand.”
And then the great discussion of Miami Dade teacher VAM scores of 2016 ended. I was satisfied. I felt it was a win-win for everyone. I got to rant against VAM on public airwaves without pissing anyone off, my colleague had her concerns about AP teacher VAMs addressed, the new School Board members came across as concerned and informed about VAM, and the Superintendent was on the record for disagreeing with VAM and recognizing that VAM’s complexity causes it to be a problematic system for teacher evaluations. We may not have come up with any solutions for how to end VAM, but the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that the problem exists in the first place. Mission accomplished.
The Superintendent even walked over to my colleague and myself later on to express his concern for our situation. Then when I questioned him on what he planned to do about 9th graders not having PSAT scores, the woman sitting in front of me the entire time spun her ahead around 270 degrees and interjected, “I can answer that question. I’m (insert the name of the head of the Office of Assessment, Research and Data).” It was like a scene out of the Exorcist.
Here I was, face to face with the Queen Bee of Accountability in Dade County. I have bombarded this woman with a daily deluge of emails regarding the invalidity of her model and VAM in general since I received an 8.5 from her office and lost my Best & Brightest bonus two weeks ago. I’m sure I’m referred to around the office as, “that crazy VAM obsessed b*tch” which would not be an entirely inaccurate description of me-just ask my husband.
She went on to state, “We are pursuing the possibility of using 8th grade FSA scores as the academic covariate for ninth grade AP students.”
Fair enough. I asked her if she would let us know when her office had decided which academic covariate they would be using for my VAM. I don’t want to be researching their PSAT scores if the office is using their 8th grade FSA scores instead. She dismissively responded to my question, “Why do you care?”
“Because I just lost $10,000 because of number generated by your office,” I explained.
Data czars indeed. Totally removed from the realities of the classroom, content with their cushy six figure jobs and indifferent to the plight of the people they castigate with their numbers. I’m sure between my emails and this blog post I am ensuring myself an 8.5 in Learner Progress for the rest of my career. And what’s to stop them? There is no accountability, transparency, or appeals process for VAM scores. They can dictate that you are an 8.5 and that’s it. End of discussion.
After this encounter, my colleague and I were eager to get home to our three kids and finally eat something. As I drove home through Miami’s Design District I couldn’t help but ponder, “What kind of marketing sicko decides to place shops designed for the 1% in the middle of a third world ghetto? Who can feel good about themselves after purchasing a Louboutin handbag that’s value is more than the entire net-worth of all the people living within a half mile radius of the Design District?”
Realizing that despite my exhaustion I would have to wake up at 3 am to hide that damn Elf I pondered what kind of marketing sicko thought the Elf of the Shelf tradition was good idea? The holiday season is stressful enough without having to wake up every morning at 3 am a month before Christmas to find a witty hiding place for a 6 inch doll with a creepy look on her face. Now my 8 year old daughter complains if the Elf is hiding in a lame spot without a funny position or hasn’t eaten her cookie she left behind for them or doesn’t write a note. I live in a 1400 sq ft house. I have room for one damn shelf in the whole house.
I have always loved Miami at night. One of the things I miss about my life before being a parent, is being out at night in Miami. There is something about the neon lights which turn the low clouds a mysterious hue of pinkish grey and balmy breezes that I’ve always enjoyed. Even driving through the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, you see beautiful Christmas light displays with cheerful inflatables. There is a spirit of hope imbedded in Miami’s immigrant communities that I’ve always admired. When I pulled up in my driveway, I watched my children play inside my house from the car. Feeling like the worst mom in the world because I hadn’t seen them all day and missed my son’s Cub Scout awards ceremony to speak at a School Board meeting about VAM. I felt waves of anxiety when I thought about how I would pay the Christmas credit card bills when they came due in January or how much longer I could keep a roof over three kids heads on a very low teacher’s salary in a very expensive city. When I walked towards my house, my kids opened the door and ran towards me chanting, “VAM is a Sham! VAM is a Sham!”
It’s a wonderful life indeed.