Gates Foundation

February 27, 2014; Washington Post

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is well known for its support of measurement and has invested heavily in promoting a system to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom. This system is called the “Value-Added Method” of evaluation, or VAM. However, as the Gates Foundation describes it, VAM is intended as a tool to help identify which teachers are successful and effective, and which need some form of development to improve their efforts in the classroom. In other words, its use is intended to be private, between the teacher and the district.

In Florida, a judge ruled in a lawsuit by the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union that VAM results are public, and therefore must be disclosed. The newspaper had fought for release of the data for more than a year, arguing that parents have a right to know how teachers are doing, and the public should have a look at VAM to see whether and how it works. As quoted in the Washington Post, the Gates Foundation has come out against this:

“We at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation oppose the public release of individual teacher information because there is no evidence to suggest it will lead to improvement in teacher performance. It will not attract new intelligent and passionate individuals to the profession, and it will not make our schools more effective.”

VAM is a complex tool that measures the impact a teacher has on students against the achievements expected of those students. Based on standardized testing, a formula projects how the students in a given classroom are expected to improve over the course of a year. At the end of that year, if they have done better, it is assumed that the teacher has had a positive impact, and is evaluated accordingly. If the students have not improved to the anticipated level, the teacher is assumed to have had a problem, and a development strategy will be worked on with them to help them be more effective. A good overview of VAM can be found here.

Florida wrote this kind of evaluation system into law with Section 1012.34(a)1 of its statues, reading:

“Performance of Students. At least 50% of a performance evaluation must be based upon data and indicators of student learning growth assessed annually and measured by statewide assessments or, for subjects and grade levels not measured by statewide assessments, by district assessments as provided in s. 1008.22(8), F.S.”

Reactions to the release of VAM scores by the teachers in Florida and their union have been strong. The system itself has little support from the profession, who accuse it of reducing the act of teaching to an algorithm, and releasing the results could lead to misinterpretation by parents who do not completely understand it.

The Gates Foundation states, “If we want to truly help teachers improve, we must develop evaluation systems that give personalized feedback collated from multiple sources, and we must then give teachers the time, support and resources they need to use that feedback to improve their practice.”

Now that scores intended to be private have been released, will parents demand new teachers for their child based on poor VAM scores? It sounds like it; one reader of the Washington Post article comments, “I also believe teacher evaluations should be available for parents to look at. We as parents should be able to within reason choose teachers that teach our children.”—Rob Meiksins