Kenni Smith's picture

My Son Is Not a Widget

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Teacher Magazine online published this week a fantastic email exchange (what a great idea!) between Why School? author Mike Rose and Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Very much worth reading.

One rhetorical question posed in the exchange really struck me: How do we instill humility in our policymakers? I wouldn’t have thought to articulate it that way, but I think it’s a perfect way to frame the where-do-we-go-now question. So much of the policy-level discussion about the state of education refers to students and teachers—the people who, obviously, matter most in the conversation—with a kind of implicit callousness that stuns me every time I encounter it.

A perfect demonstration of this lack of humility identified by Ravitch is a term I notice being bandied about a lot recently: “value-added.” It’s being put forth, I think, as a slightly more humane and sensible approach to “accountability.” Whether it is that or not hardly matters, as far as I’m concerned. Value-added? Value-added? The metaphor is sickening.

From Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: val·ue–add·ed
Pronunciation: \ˈval-(ˌ)yü-ˈa-dəd\
Function: adjective
Date: 1935
: of, relating to, or being a product whose value has been increased especially by special manufacturing, marketing, or processing <value–added goods>

I can imagine some trying to excuse “value-added” as convenient shorthand for something understood to be more complex. But really, there’s no excuse. Teachers are not assembly line workers. Children are not products. Period.

Kenni Smith spent 14 years as a Materials Developer at Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

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Comments (3)

What do you mean by

What do you mean by "value-added'? I, too, read the exchange, and thought that the comments presented by both Mike Rose and Diane Ravitch were amazing and could only hope that they would be read by Arne Duncan and President Obama, as they both have much  to gain from the discussion. I'm just trying to get a sense of what and where- "value-added" has come into play...

Do you mean in terms of curriculum, or testing?? I agree with you and loved your last statement- "Teachers are not assembly line workers...children are not products..." Government doesn't get that!!!

Thanks so much for your

Thanks so much for your comments, Susanna! Great question.

To generalize, value-added teacher assessments  "gauge the effectiveness of schools and teachers by measuring the gains that their students make on standardized tests over the course of a school year." (Definition from the Ed Week article "Value Added Gauge of Teaching Probed.") Implementations of various value-added models are already happening in a number of states, Tennessee and Louisiana being the ones most in the spotlight recently. Value-added teacher evaluation is also a factor in the Race to the Top competition.

This particular post of mine wasn't about the efficacy of "value-added" assessment, mind you, :) but rather about the semantic implications, and that because I believe that language shapes our identities, our thinking, our very way of life.

HOWEVER, since you bring it up...

Well-propagandized though they are, value-added models of teacher evaluation are highly controversial and are riddled with problems, largely because they rest on a set of disturbingly specious assumptions. Just to give one example, it is assumed that teachers at a particular grade can be evaluated in a devoid-of-grade-context way. One of my favorite bloggers dubbed this the "back to the future hypothesis." Read her great post about it here.

I sure hope we'll see more critical dialogue about this in the coming months!

Terminology aside, I recently

Terminology aside, I recently found this super post summarizing the problems with "VAM" (value added models) at the Shanker Blog. It's got references to research and everything, in case you come across skeptics (or rather, non-skeptics).