What VAM Can Never Measure?

It does not matter how many papers are written discrediting VAM. If it was possible to shove the American Statistical Association Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment in front of Andrew Cuomo’s face, it would make no difference to him. He would toss the paper into his circular file because reason has nothing to do with his so-called reform. VAM is not a rationale, but a belief to the reformers. The basis of their belief has nothing to do with mathematics, but everything to do with the tall tales the reformers give as anecdotal evidence to justify their beliefs.

This tall tale, often told by Teach for America types go something like this. After five weeks of training, this natural born teacher who just graduated from Harvard comes to work in a high needs school and immediately he is able to motivate every student in his 7th grade class located in the most poverty stricken area of Chicago. Each lesson captures the imagination of every student in the classroom. These highly inspirational lessons are differentiated toward every student in his class. He “teaches like a champion” as he was taught in those five magical weeks. He breaks down every academic behavior happening in the classroom. His students never knew that they have to face the teacher, give him direct eye contact, and have their feet planted squarely on floor. For the first time someone told them that they must have pencil in hand ready to write. Not only that, he is at school at 7:00 AM in the morning working with students one-on-one to catch them up to grade level. He tutors individual kids during his prep, during his lunch, and after school until nine at night. On weekends, he spends Saturday and Sunday at a local library working with even more of students. When April comes around, this class now has 100% of his students at level three or four on the Common Core ELA and Math Assessments. Just think, the previous year, when these students had that lazy burned-out unionized teacher who came to school at 8:40 and left exactly at 3:00, only 4% of these students even reached a level two on the assessment. Therefore, this “superman” teacher is rated using VAM as highly effective while that shriveled up union hack next door is deservedly ineffective and must be fired. Once every teacher in America is just like this Harvard wunderkind, every student will be on grade level headed toward college. There will no longer be any poverty in this great nation.

Disney could not have come up with a better fairy tale. All we need is for this teacher to sing a happy tune and a dozen Chicago pigeons will fly through his classroom window and tidy up his classroom. No mention is made of hunger, poor health, drug abuse, neglect, violence and homelessness that such students face every day. No mention is made of the lack of books, pencils, paper, or even desks and chairs found in such schools. No mention is made of broken lights, peeling paint and rodent droppings in these classrooms. No mention is made of about the lack of support and even terror initiated by many administrators of such schools toward new teachers. No mention is made that the only piece of technology these classrooms have is maybe a single outdated computer with intermittent internet access. No mentioned is made that even the most determined teacher will burn-out working 80 hours with no social or family life. No mention is made that this teacher’s meager salary cannot afford the price of a city studio apartment, food, transportation as well as teaching supplies for himself and his students. No mention is made that his salary will not be enough to survive and he must moonlight a second or even a third job to make ends meet while, at the same time, producing pages of lesson plans and taking additional college courses. Can VAM measure the stress and exhaustion of a working teacher trying to meet the demand that every child in his/her class grow academically against such odds?

But the main thing that VAM can never measure is what is within a good teacher’s heart. Only another anecdote can describe the heart of real teacher that no algorithm can compute. In the year 1965, I was ten-year-old fifth grader at PS 186 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I was not a great student. I struggled with reading because at that time the city used what was called the look-say approach to reading instruction using those old Scott Foresman basal reading series (commonly referred to as Dick and Jane). This approach was a precursor to what would someday be called whole language. I often had difficulty pronouncing words and therefore I was not a fluent reader. My parents were concerned and I remember sitting in the principal’s office with them. His name was Mr. Gladstone and he was the epitome of the old fashioned male principal. He was tall, wore a suit, and had distinguished looking gray hair, but had a kind face. He had me read for him and my parents. I do not recall exactly what was said, but as a result of the meeting, my class was changed. My new teacher was Miss Burke. She was this older Irish woman who always wore plaid skirts and high button blouses. To me, this teacher was Mary Poppins, Maria Von Tramp, and Cinderella’s fairy godmother combined into one living, breathing person who did change my life—not by magic but through caring, determination and love.

In her classroom, no one was allowed to make fun of any student who had a learning problem. She taught her students to help one another. When we read silently a book of our choosing, she always came over to me and had me read very quietly to her. I did not realize it at the time, but she was teaching me a host of strategies that helped me to become a fluent reader. I would not realize until I became a teacher myself that she was giving me phonetic and word analysis tools to improve my fluency. I recall that each time I read a page without error, she would have a big smile on her face and say “good job.”

During that era, each class was required to put on a play. She had each student read some lines of script and then said that I had the most expression and asked the class if I should have the main part. To my surprise, the whole class agreed with her. That was the first time in my school life that a teacher and my classmates showed confidence in me. However, I was scared to death and when I got home I cried to my parents that I could not do it. My mother called her at the school the next day and told her of my fears. I was afraid that I could not remember all the lines; I was afraid of making mistakes; and I was very much afraid of making a fool of myself in that giant auditorium in front of every student, parent and teacher. That evening, Miss Burke came to my house and spoke to my parents and me. She and my parents came up with a plan how I would learn my lines and practice a little bit every day. With her encouragement, I did it. I performed the main role of silly play about eating the right type of foods. I recall that I had to perform not only in the morning, but also again in the afternoon for another group of students. At that time, many of us went home for lunch, but I recall Miss Burke saying to my mom that I should have lunch with her (she was afraid I would not come back).

Whereas today, the common core teaches fifth grade students to compare the structures of drama, poetry and prose, we lived it. I learned how hard it is to put together a play with scenery, cuing for each stage direction and the details of choreographing a single dance. I learned how to stand, project my voice and even walk on a stage. Today, students learn that scripts have italicized stage directions, but I learned why and how each of those directions was important.

Miss Burke also ran the school’s chorus (glee club in 1960s jargon) with another teacher. I auditioned and soon found myself learning a medley of songs from Mary Poppins. We worked hours memorizing those songs, learning how to breathe and how to perform on cue using various hand signals. I remember that our chorus was chosen to perform in Lafayette High School. I was amazed that we were bathed in light while the audience was in total darkness. That was fine with me because it made me less nervous. To this day, I can still sing Supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus and Chim Chimney.

In addition, at that time, the Brooklyn Museum had an orchestra. This orchestra taught school children music appreciation. Every week, the fifth grade classes of our school went to the museum and the conductor and his orchestra taught us about all the different types of musical instruments and the role each instrument played in a concert. The week we were learning about woodwinds, I remember him calling me to the stage to try to blow through a tuba. No matter how hard I tried, I could not produce a single note. At the end of four weeks, all those instruments came together and played for us all different types of classical music. That was my first introduction to Beethoven and Mozart. I would learn the complexity of such music.

During the year, we went on a trip to the New York World’s Fair in which Miss Burke would explain all the different exhibits from many different cultures. Before we entered the Vatican exhibit, she explained to us the whole history behind the Pieta. For the first time, I was introduced to the Renaissance and Michelangelo. At the end of the year, because the fifth grade was the graduating class, we took a trip to Philadelphia to Independence Hall, the Franklin Museum and Betsy Ross’ House. What I remember most form that trip was sticking my head inside the Liberty Bell and sitting, in Independence Hall, at the desk of Thomas Jefferson. That motivated me to begin reading everything I could about our third president.

In terms of learning, I improved my writing because Miss Burke got each of us a penpal from Europe. I ended up writing to a young girl in Czechoslovakia. My letters got longer and more descriptive as the year progressed as I tried to tell her everything that we American children did throughout the day. She even had us write to an author of a book we read. I wrote to the author of a children’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. I was so proud when he wrote back to me and I have that letter to this very day. By the way, I still have that old play script in an attic box. A few months ago when we were cleaning out the attic, this sixty-year-old man refused to part with it.

That script is more than a bunch of faded rexograph papers. I cannot part with it because it represents the richest educational experience I ever had. It is amazing that all this was done in an average New York City public school by a teacher who taught with love and care. Miss Burke taught in a very traditional manner. To tell the truth, I cannot recall or even visualize a single lesson, but what I do recall is the warmth every time she spoke to either me or the class. I recall her smile and her pat on my back every time I did a good job. Can VAM measure any of this? Can VAM measure the love this teacher showed me and the other students of that class? Can it measure all the wonderful experiences this woman gave to me and my classmates that year? If you notice, I have not mentioned a single test. I do not recall taking any type of formal standardized test that year. Instead of hours of test prep, I had real learning, great learning. I learned through experiences, through song, through dance, through art and through purposeful writing. After that year, I no longer had any significant academic difficulties. What this teacher did for me is really how one is made college ready. A child is made college ready when you instill in them curiosity and a love of learning. Hours of high stakes testing and days of test prep create just the opposite—a hatred of learning. As I am writing this, my eyes are very moist. My tears represent the happy memories instilled by Miss Burke as well as tears of sadness for what has been lost—the true magic of teaching. Teaching is a human act, a complex act that cannot be measured by any algorithm. The passion and complexity of a human interaction cannot be measured by a single snapshot. When reformers describe teaching, it is nothing more than a mechanical act. One cannot measure something that comes from your heart and soul. One cannot measure an act of love, for that is what teaching really is.