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The quality of the U.S. teacher workforce is under the microscope, and rightly so. Teachers represent the most important school-based resource determining students’ academic success, and a shortage of graduates with knowledge and skills necessary to drive innovation or to command premium wages in a global economy threatens the nation’s economic prosperity. Moreover, children from low-income families and children of color are disproportionately assigned to the least effective teachers, a finding that helps explain yawning gaps between average educational outcomes of groups defined by family income or ethnicity. Broad improvements in teacher quality will thus serve the strategic goals of raising student achievement overall and reducing disparity in achievement between groups.
Past initiatives to improve teacher quality offer two general lessons. First, simplistic responses—across-the-board raises, more stringent licensure requirements, mandated professional development are extremely expensive, utterly ineffective, or both. Only policies that tightly link incentives to desired results stand a chance of being effective and affordable. Clearly, making such links requires a robust approach to assessing teachers’ impact on outcomes of interest, especially student achievement. Second, teachers must be involved in crafting and implementing policies aimed at improving their instructional potency. These lessons together highlight the need for a language of productivity calibrated to education.
The need for such a language would probably astonish Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. Smith wrote, “There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” and he was not writing about teaching. Smith was concerned with manufacturing instead. And the conventional language used to discuss productivity today— especially the term “value-added”—is well-suited to that sector of the economy. In elementary and secondary education, however, the use of the term value- added has proved problematic. Although widely embraced by researchers and policymak- ers to denote estimates of teachers’ productivity, typically referred to as effectiveness, the term value-added “sends chills down the spine” of most teachers union officials.
Why such a visceral reaction? The usual explanation trots out a series of concerns with estimates of teacher effectiveness, but as important as these concerns are, they miss a crucial point: The actual term value-added may be partly to blame. This paper unpacks this new and complementary explanation, and it constructs an alternative to the term value-added better suited to conversations—especially ones involving teachers—about the use of estimates of teacher effectiveness in education policies.
New terminology, of course, does not address legitimate concerns about estimates of teacher effectiveness derived from student achievement data. Accordingly, this paper goes onto offer a conceptual framework for appreciating these concerns, and specific guidance for addressing them. Combined, the new terminology, the framework, and the guidance form a set of tools that may be put to good use immediately, especially in states planning to apply for competitive Race to the Top funds.
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Associate Director, Education Policy