Monday, June 14, 2010

Good Morning. I'm Mr. Smith And I'll Be Your Value Adder This Semester

We've been banging around the hallowed halls of academe for quite a few years now--most of which we remember and one of the most enduring lessons that has inflicted itself upon us during that transit is that conversations beginning with "We're going to fix the broken tenure system" seldom end well for teachers.
Hillsborough County School Board plans to hire consultants from the University of Wisconsin. The $3.4 million contract is part of Hillsborough County's seven-year, $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The university's task: use student tests to calculate each teacher's annual "value-added" contribution to the district.
 OK, so our first thought upon perusing the above paragraph was that Bill Gates has way too much money and not enough to do, but hey, this is America so if he wants to give $3.4 million to the good people at the University of Wisconsin so they can travel down to Hillsborough County, ask the kids and the parents who the good teachers are, then report that to the Board (in a snappy Powerpoint presentation no doubt) who are we to question the priorities of a district with a $29 million hole in their health care budget? Oh, and $100 million cuts in their budget already, with more on the horizon.These are education professionals we're dealing with here, brother man. Well, Gates isn't, but he's rich so that means he doesn't need any expertise.

Besides, it's not about the money anyway, it's about the buzz, the juice man, the spin. That's where "value added" comes in. Yeah baby, got to sex it up. See, when it gets right down to it, who the good and bad teachers are in any district is no real secret to anyone who works or has kids in that district, so for $3.4 million the folks in Hillsborough aren't going to be told who's' good and bad--since they already know that--they're going to be told who's adding value! Totally different.
"Hillsborough's project is enormously ambitious," Christopher Thorn, associate director of the university's Value-Added Research Center in Madison said. "What Hillsborough is doing is what every one of them wants to do." Beginning in 2011, the district hopes to use the value-added data — along with principal and peer evaluations — to help decide which teachers deserve tenure, promotions or dismissal. By 2013, such information also will determine teacher pay. "We need formulas for every teacher of every subject," said David Steele, the district's project director.
It's formulas, dude! Science! E=mc2 all the way! Now, we were awake in algebra class that day and we know when you make formulas, you have these things called variables which can, you know, vary and cause the answer to come out differently, so Dr. Mr. Thorn, in the interests of adding a little value to your calculation, (Get it? Adding value to the value added formula? We crack us up) we were just wondering how you are going to deal with some of the variables teachers face every day. For example:

We'll call this variable the sugar high factor. Let's say you have little Alex in your fifth hour, right after lunch. At lunch he consumed two bags of M&M's, a Mountain Dew, and economy size bag of Cheetos. His blood sugar levels are approaching altitudes at which commercial jets fly, and you have planned to have group discussions of The Scarlet Letter, but you spend most of your time peeling Alex off the ceiling so he probably doesn't have much value added to his knowledger of early American literature that day.

The second variable we'll call the jello spine factor. So, you've got little Billy in your second hour. Now, Billy may be ADHD, or maybe he doesn't get enough attention at home, or maybe he's just a brat. Anyway, you know that ten minutes in your class won't go by before you have to tell little Billy to tone it down, or pay attention or quit hanging out of the window. Finally you've had enough and you bounce his little pre-pubescent butt down to the office. In a rare moment of educational leadership the principal assigns little Billy to detention which cause his his parents to show up the next morning to explain to the principal the angelic nature of their offspring and blame everyone and everything else for his faults, which, of course aren't really faults but are brought on by insufficient skill and talent in others. Having by then regained that particular lack of awareness that caused him to become a principal in the first place, the principal caves and tells you not to send little Billy out of your class anymore, but to deal with him, which you do, but at the cost of adding value to Billy and the rest of the class' educational experience.

We'll call this last one the value meal variable. Let's say little Janey is in your first hour class. Now, Janey's parents aren't the most well off in the district and sometimes when Janey comes to class she hasn't eaten anything since the night before. She wants to share in your excitement as you discuss A Day No Pigs Would Die but it's hard to hear you over the growling of her stomach, and even though she normally is one of your more attentive students, even your sterling presentation today can't compete with her fantasies of eggs, bacon and toast. You want to add value to her appreciation of literature, but the value she needs added is an egg Macmuffin.

Now, we could do more Dr. Mr. Thorn, but we think you get the point. With all these variables, coming up with an equation that equals good teaching (which is not the same--or necessarily causally related to--good learning) should remind us all that there was a very good reason logical positivism was abandoned 50 years ago, but in case you weren't listening in your undergrad stats class that term, allow us to elucidate: Your ability to identify and quantify all of the organs of a frog as you dissect it is very impressive, but in the process of demonstrating your very well developed skill at naming and counting frog innards, you kill the frog.

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