Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Victory over Value Add

(I was writing my final article on this era when I realized I hadn’t really focused completely on the history of Value Added Metrics (VAM) in my original coverage of the Obama years. I am saying this because VAM sprites both pro and con are holding me at gunpoint demanding I write an article all about them.)

In 2009, The New Teacher Project’s The Widget Effect declared that schools treated all teachers as interchangeable units, didn’t bother to train new teachers, refused to fire tenured teachers, and worse, gave all teachers high ratings.  99% of teachers got ratings of Proficient or higher! The shame!

Mind you, none of these are new declarations, but this paper initiated the argument that allowed Obama and Duncan (as I wrote here)  to demand that states evaluate teachers with student achievement, and that achievement must be test scores. Thus, one of the requirements for a Duncan “waiver” from No Child Left Behind school “program improvement penalities”, which by now were affecting over half of all schools, was that the state must begin evaluating teacher effectiveness using data–just another word for VAM.

Put another way, Obama and Duncan allowed states to escape schoolwide accountability for student test scores by forcing them to agree to teacher accountability for student test scores.

In 2009, 10 states required evaluation to include student achievement metrics. By 2015, 43 states required value-added metrics for evaluation. Most courts agreed that the usually hasty and poorly thought through implementation plans were absurd and unfair, but declined to step in. There were some notable exceptions, as you’ll see. (Note: I wrote a longer opinion of VAM that includes more info.)

From 1% Ineffective to…..?

By now, no one should be surprised to learn that these efforts were a spectacular failure, although rarely reported in just those terms. But by 2019, only 34 states required it, and most other states still requiring them on paper had watered down the impact by dramatically reducing the VAM component, making VAM optional, removing the yearly requirement for teacher evaluations, or allowing schools to design their own metrics.

In the definitive evaluation, Harvard researchers studied 24 states that implemented value-added metrics and learned that principals refused to give teachers bad ratings. In fact, principals would rate teachers lower in confidential ratings than in formal ones, although in either method the average score was a positive evaluation.  When asked, principals said that they felt mean giving the bad results (which suggests they didn’t agree with them). Moreover, many principals worried that if they gave a bad review, the teachers might leave–or worse, force the principal to begin firing procedures. Either way, the principal might end up forced to hire a teacher no better or possibly worse.

Brief aside: Hey, that should sound familiar to long-time readers . As I wrote seven years ago: “…most principals don’t fire teachers often because it’s incredibly hard to find new ones.”. Or as I put it on Twitter back when it allowed only 140 characters, “Hiring, not firing, is the pain point.” 

So the Obama administration required an evaluation method that would identify bad teachers for firing or training, and principals are worried that the teachers might leave or get fired. That’s….kind of a problem. 

Overall, the Harvard study found that only two of them gave more than 1% of teachers unsatisfactory ratings.

If you do the math, 100% – 1% = 99% which is exactly what the Widget effect found, so that was a whole bunch of money and energy spent for no results.

New Mexico

The study’s outlier was New Mexico, which forced principals to weight VAM as 50% of the overall evaluation score, courtesy of Hanna Skandera, a committed reform education secretary appointed by a popular Republican governor. As a result, over 1 in 4 teachers were rated unsatisfactory.

But! A 2015 court decision prevented any terminations based on the evaluation system, and the case got delayed until it was irrelevant. In 2017, Governor Martinez agreed to a compromise on the evaluation methodology, increasing permitted absences to six and dropping VAM from 50% to 35%. New Mexico also completed its shift from a purple to blue state, and in 2018 all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates promised they would end the evaluation system. The winner, Michelle Lujan, wasted no time. On January 3, 2019, a perky one-page announcement declared that VAM was ended, absences wouldn’t count on evaluations, and just for good measure she ended PARCC.

So the one state in which principals couldn’t juke the stats to keep teachers they didn’t want to fire, the courts stepped in, the Republican governor backed down, and the new Democrat governor rendered the whole fuss moot.


California had always been a VAM outlier, as governor Jerry Brown steadfastly refused the waiver bribes .Students Matter, an organization founded by a tech entrepreneur, engaged in a two-pronged attempt to force California into evaluation compliance–first by suing to end teacher tenure (Vergara) and then by forcing evaluation by student test scores (Doe vs. Antioch).  Triumphalists hailed the original 2014 Vergara decision that overturned the protections of teacher tenure, and even the  more cautiously optimistic believed that the California appeals court might overturn the decision, but the friendlier California Supreme Court would side with the plaintiffs and end tenure. The appeals court did overturn, and the CA Supreme Court….declined to review, letting the appellate ruling stand. 

Welch and Students Matter likewise tried to force California schools to read its 1971 Stull Act as requiring teachers to be evaluated by test scores. That failed, too.  No appeal.


“Experts” often talk about forcing education in America to follow market-based principles. But in the VAM failure, the principals are following those principles! (hyuk.) As I’ve also written many times, there is, in fact, a teacher shortage. But at the same time, even the confidential evaluations demonstrate that the vast majority of teachers are doing good work by their manager’s estimation.

As a teacher, I would be interested in learning whether I had an impact on my students’ scores. I’d be more interested, really, in whether my teaching methods were helping all students equally, or if there were useful skews. Were my weakest students, the ones who really weren’t qualified for the math I was teaching, being harmed, unlearning some of the earlier skills that could have been enforced? Was my practice of challenging the strongest students with integrated problem solving and cumulative applications of material keeping them in the game compared to other students whose teachers taught more faster, tested only on new material, and gave out practice tests?

But the idea that any teachers other than, perhaps, reading teachers in elementary school could be accurately assessed on their performance by student learning is just absurd.

Any teacher could have told you that. Many teachers did tell the politicians and lobbyists and billionaires that. But teachers are the peasants and plebes of the cognitive elite, so the country had to waste billions only to get right back to where we started. Worse: they still haven’t learned.

( I swear I began this article as the final one in the series until I realized VAM was pulling focus. I really do have that one almost done. Happy New Year.)

Next up–and Finally! Bush/Obama Ed Reform: It All Came Tumbling Down


About educationrealist

12 responses to “Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Victory over Value Add

  • Roger Sweeny

    Back in 1983, A Nation at Risk said that students weren’t learning much of what their K-12 (and especially high school) curricula said they should be learning. This would lead to a terrible future for themselves and for the country.

    One group of reformers said that significant improvement would require focusing on outputs rather than inputs. Not how many hours a student was in school but how much knowledge and skills she acquired. Not how a teacher was “trained” but how much his students learned. So students should be required to show they had acquired the skills and knowledge in the curriculum before they could graduate, i.e., high stakes tests. Meanwhile, a substantial part of a teacher’s compensation should depend on how much improvement her students showed, i.e., value added measures.

    High stakes tests showed that students weren’t learning anything close to what they were supposed to. So the tests were dumbed down, or the passing score was lowered, or the tests were just junked entirely. Value added measures are difficult (sometimes impossible) to do well but I think it is fair to say that not many people tried very hard, and the pushback was enormous. They now lie on the trash heap of educational innovations. This group of reformers has been soundly defeated.

    Student performance hasn’t improved much. But fortunately, that may not matter. Much of the school curriculum is useless to students, and even when they learn stuff for a while, most of it “fades out”. A Nation at Risk was wrong.

    As I heard so often during my teaching career, “The smart kids will do well anyway.” And the others, at least they’re occupied.

    Perhaps I am being too cynical.

    • educationrealist

      One quibble: Nation at Risk didn’t say our kids weren’t learning. They said our kids weren’t being challenged, that they weren’t taking difficult courses in high school. Our failure to demand more from high school students meant that our national economy was at risk.

      Nation at Risk did a lot of damage and as for the rest of it yes, you are correct.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I suppose I was confusing “not learning enough because the courses are too thin” and “not learning enough because student aren’t being taught well enough”, which was one focus of the later “education reform” movement.

        The great irony, more accurately the great blindness, is that young people weren’t learning much even of the courses that A Nation at Rick thought weren’t full enough. Then–shockingly!– they didn’t learn more when Common Core purported to make the courses more challenging.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Wow, this post has been up for a month and there are only 4 comments, all from a few days after it went up. Has “education reform” faded away as a concern?

    • Joe from DC

      In short, yes. All these previous reforms will be rendered moot once the smoke of covid clears. It will be interesting, and perhaps horrifying, to see what takes their place.

  • Joe from DC

    I’ve read this blog on a regular basis since I became a teacher (2015). I value your voice and like hearing about your experiences from across the country. I am a HS science teacher in a big east coast urban area.

    To answer a question of another commenter, I think there are so few comments relative to the readership of this blog is that education policy failings of the past pale in comparison to what covid reaction (overreaction in my opinion) has done to our public schools, to our families, to our government, and to our society. The content on this blog is great and I read it all, but when it comes to chiming in… I’m just sitting back bracing for whatever comes next in my real life.

    • Roger Sweeny

      COVID is a big, big, big deal now but by next January, it will actually be something like a bad flu. If we can get out of our expert conservatism regarding approvals and dosing, that should be true by September. There will be some sort of anti-reform or neo-reform or …?

      The past should inform what schools do in the future. Helping to answer questions like “what can be done and what can’t be done?”, what worked in 2000s ‘education reform’ and what didn’t?”

      But it just seems to be going down the memory hole.

      • Joe from DC

        Do you think that the media or “activists” or education schools or politicians care what works or doesn’t work? I don’t.

        Unfortunately, I also think that the vast majority of parents who could potentially have the political capital needed to force serious conversations will continue to put their children into private school or move to school zones full of other high earning, educated, 2 parent families. Self segregation is one factor that allows “education reformers” to screw with the educations of working class kids.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Yes, I think they care “what works”. They desperately care. For they have a model of the world that goes something like this: If everyone was well-educated, many of America’s (and the world’s!) problems would be solved. Everyone would have good jobs at good wages. There would be no racial/ethnic gaps in achievement, either during or after school. And this is possible because there is so much unrealized potential out there. (Why is it unrealilzed? Because of injustice.)

        Alas, this faith does not agree with reality. People differ widely in their abilities and temperaments. Most students are doing about as well as their abilities and interests will take them. Most students are not terribly interested in most of what they are supposed to learn. Some can memorize a lot for a test (and then forget if they are not tested on it again); some can’t.

        If you are trying to accomplish the impossible, but you think it HAS TO BE DONE to make the world a decent place, you get a little desperate, a little weird. You keep looking for the key, and trying out one failing scheme after another. Not surprising that at some point you kind of think, “I hope this change will increase achievement but if it doesn’t, at least it will make students have political attitudes that are closer to ours (which are, of course, more socially just, etc.).

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    […] Value Add, one of which goes through the obvious logical failings,  the other outlining the voter political rejection mentioned […]

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    […] Next Up: Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Victory over Value Add […]

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