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VAM: What it Will and Won’t Tell You About My Teaching

June 1, 2012

Primum non nocere
First, do no harm

With 2.5 weeks left of a school year unlike any other in my two decade long career in education, perhaps it should come as no surprise that at precisely this moment, groups are moving forward in a strategic strike to insert Value Added Methodology into teacher evaluations in the second largest school district in the country, LAUSD.

A group described as “an independent group called Our Schools, Our Voice*” on the Pass/Fail blog has decided it is imperative to inject the use of the VAM algorithm to judge me as a teacher for 25% of my evaluation.  It is all, of course, to put students first, make no excuses, and get rid of bad teachers. Teach Plus Los Angeles, Teachers for a New Unionism, Communities for Teaching Excellence, Educators 4 Excellence, and Tom, Dick, and Harry are also a part of the groups supporting the use of VAM in teacher evaluations.

But let me tell you what these VAM scores won’t reveal about my teaching: how I…

  • Taught Jacob the value of getting to school on time
  • Helped Andy stop yelling out in class
  • Helped Tasha excel in the Honors program in spite of her friends
  • Taught Ismael and Sam how to manage impulsivity without medication
  • Taught all students how to be organized and prepared, as scholars should be
  • Taught my young boys how to be gentlemen
  • Taught students how to manage time
  • Helped students through the deaths of family members
  • Taught students the value of giving back to the community
  • Taught the whole class that when you rip a book it is a crime against the entire school community (and them really getting it!)

In that last bullet, I must explain how this incident was the most troubling of the year, and yet it provided the deepest lesson of all for my students. During the non-mandatory morning nutrition break, I found pieces of the historical novel I’ve used for 10 years, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, ripped in pieces in the quad. As the only teacher who uses the novel, I knew my students had done this.

How is this possible, I asked, as I picked up the pieces from the ground. Every class of students, from all levels, programs, and dispositions had always respected the books, especially the novels in which we go so deep and with which we make meaningful connections. I believed someone would step up to take responsibility. No one ever did.

So we wrote. And we discussed. And they served a 5 week class detention during nutrition until they stopped saying “we’re sorry this happened to you.” No! It did not happen to me, it happened to you, I explained. I already received my education. I already read the book. Now your little brothers and sisters will have one less book to share in class because of the budget cuts.

When they finally understood, one student asked if each one could bring 50 cents to cover the cost of the book. That’s a start, I said. Another suggested the class work in the school garden on a Saturday to make up for the damage done to the school community. Bingo, they got it. Each and everyone showed up for the gardening and we moved on, lesson learned.

Maybe my scores would tell you that the students are deficient in analyzing the changes in Confucian thought during the Sung or Mongol dynasties. Or that they need more instruction in St. Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of classical philosophy with Christian theology. Or the opposite. But we can’t know because there are no previous scores to measure me against. And my 7th grade social studies students will not be tested until the end of next year school year. That can be fixed later, explain the independent groups.

But what I do know, and what every caring and dedicated parent knows is that there is no purpose in raising brilliant children who grow up to harm others, hurt society. That’s what VAM could never tell you about my teaching and the point overlooked in the VAM debate.

*how can you be an independent group funded by Bill Gates for the specific purpose of injecting VAM into teacher evaluation systems?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jane permalink
    June 1, 2012 9:54 pm


    Beautifully written! Although many think that teaching can be measured in numbers, we who are in the classrooms know that there is so much more that happen every single day in our classrooms that cannot be measured. In business we can use dollars and cents, win and losses… to measure success, but I don’t work with merchandise, cases, or stocks. I work with children and anyone who is a parent will tell you that NO two are a like, even if raised by the same parent in the same family. So much of what we do is not easily seen on paper, but I can tell you that you are not alone in knowing that there is a lot of magic that happens in our classrooms that are not seen.

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