Do Value-Added Methods Level the Playing Field for Teachers?



  • Value-added measures partially level the playing field by controlling for many student characteristics. But if they don't fully adjust for all the factors that influence achievement and that consistently differ among classrooms, they may be distorted, or confounded (An estimate of a teacher’s effect is said to be confounded when her contribution cannot be separated from other factors outside of her control, namely the the students in her classroom.)
  • Simple value-added models that control for just a few tests scores (or only one score) and no other variables produce measures that underestimate teachers with low-achieving students and overestimate teachers with high-achieving students.
  • The evidence, while inconclusive, generally suggests that confounding is weak. But it would not be prudent to conclude that confounding is not a problem for all teachers. In particular, the evidence on comparing teachers across schools is limited.
  • Studies assess general patterns of confounding. They do not examine confounding for individual teachers, and they can't rule out the possibility that some teachers consistently teach students who are distinct enough to cause confounding.
  • Value-added models often control for variables such as average prior achievement for a classroom or school, but this practice could introduce errors into value-added estimates.
  • Confounding might lead school systems to draw erroneous conclusions about their teachers – conclusions that carry heavy costs to both teachers and society.


Value-added models have caught the interest of policymakers because, unlike using student tests scores for other means of accountability, they purport to "level the playing field." That is, they supposedly reflect only a teacher's effectiveness, not whether she teaches high- or low-income students, for instance, or students in accelerated or standard classes. Yet many people are concerned that teacher effects from value-added measures will be sensitive to the characteristics of her students. More specifically, they believe that teachers of low-income, minority, or special education students will have lower value-added scores than equally effective teachers who are teaching students outside these populations. Other people worry that the opposite might be true - that some value-added models might cause teachers of low-income, minority, or special education students to have higher value-added scores than equally effective teachers who work with higher-achieving, less risky populations.

In this brief, we discuss what is and is not known about how well value-added measures level the playing field for teachers by controlling for student characteristics. We first discuss the results of empirical explorations. We then address outstanding questions and the challenges to answering them with empirical data. Finally, we discuss the implications of these findings for teacher evaluations and the actions that may be based on them.

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To Sir: Where are you?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2011 Population Survey indicates that men make up 18.3 percent of elementary and middle school teachers and 2.3 percent of preschool and kindergarten instructors, down from 2007 pre-recession proportions of 19.1 percent for grades 1 to 8, and 2.7 percent for preschool and kindergarten, reports Sarah Sparks in Education Week.

High school educators are more evenly divided: 42 percent in 2011 were men, down from 43.1 percent in 2007. The diminishing status of teachers generally, coupled with continuing sexism against men working with children, may be discouraging men from entering the field. Chanté Chambers, who recruits at historically black colleges and universities for Teach For America, sees the trend play out among high-achieving college students. Education's low status is "a major barrier" to bringing more men, particularly black men, into the field. "They're coming from communities that are not necessarily affluent, so it adds to pressure to be that breadwinner, to have financial stability," she explains.

According to Shaun Johnson, a former D.C. teacher and now a professor at Towson University, "Teacher-bashing is a new national pastime ... and [one] which you could argue is highly gendered. [Teaching's] status as a profession isn't going to improve in this climate; it's only going to get worse."

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College Readiness

Much of the reasons given for policy changes to down grade schools has been as a consequence of a push to make students more "college ready" when they graduate. This, it is argued, means we have to have higher standards.

State leaders say it’s time to face the truth: Graduating from high school in Ohio doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for college or a career.

That won’t do anymore, Gov. John Kasich and education officials say. So they’re overhauling the guidelines of what students should know, writing more challenging tests to assess what they’ve learned, forcing schools to revamp curriculum and grading schools on a tougher scale.

“The current system is letting kids down,” state Superintendent Stan Heffner said. Instead of focusing on getting students ready for college, it asks them to meet a minimum standard, a low bar, he said. “Let’s make sure they have a diploma worth owning.”

The entire Dispatch article is worth reading to get an idea of the scope of the changes expected to happen over the next year or two. Also worth reading is this new report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, titled "College Readiness: A Guide to the Field".

In recent years, the education spotlight in the United States has shifted from focusing on high school graduation to postsecondary success. Acknowledging that to thrive in today’s economy requires more than just a high school diploma, policy-makers and practitioners at the local, state, and federal level, along with their community partners, have turned their attention to equipping students with the skills and knowledge needed to enroll and succeed – without remediation – in a postsecondary program that leads to a degree (Conley 2007, 2011; Gates Foundation 2009). This shift in attention has been accompanied by a wealth of policies and initiatives aimed at preparing students to enter and succeed in college, including federal competitive grants programs, schoolwide reform initiatives, community-based education support structures, and many more. Over the past few years, the emergent field of college readiness has blossomed into an expansive effort involving multiple actors and spanning multiple sectors.

Considering the rapid emergence and growth of the field, as well as the numerous players involved, keeping abreast of relevant policies and initiatives is both a challenge and a necessity. A scan of the college readiness field can highlight successful strategies for increasing readiness, as well as gaps in research, policy, and practice, and can point to important roles for community, business, and phil- anthropic partners to play in developing a coordinated approach to college readiness.

Researchers at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (AISR) have under- taken to develop a brief guide to this burgeoning field, as part of the College Readiness Indicator System (CRIS) initiative

Here's the report. It is quite brief and worth the time to read it, if college readiness is a subject area you are interested or involved with.

College Readiness: A Guide to the Field

School district field-tests 52 (yes, 52) new tests on kids

To see where public education is being driven, let’s look at a school district in North Carolina where students in every grade were used as guinea pigs this spring to help field-test a total of 52 -- yes, 52 -- new standardized tests this spring, kindergarteners included.

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