President Obama chose Robert Gordon, who served in key roles in the first Obama administration, as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development in the U.S. Department of Education. This is a very important position in the Education Department; he will be the person in charge of the agency that basically decides what is working, what is not, and which way to go next with policy.
When he worked in the Office of Management and Budget, Gordon helped to develop the priorities for the controversial Race to the Top program. Before joining the Obama administration, he worked for Joel Klein in the New York City Department of Education.
An economist, Gordon was lead author of an influential paper in 2006 that helped to put value-added-measurement at the top of the “reformers” policy agenda. That paper, called “Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job,” was co-authored by Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O. Staiger. Kane became the lead adviser to the Gates Foundation in developing its “Measures of Effective Teaching,” which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to develop the formula for the teacher who can raise test scores consistently. Gordon went on to Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, which is the U.S. government’s lead agency for determining budget priorities.
The paper co-authored by this triumvirate championed VAM (value-added measurement, i.e., the use of student test scores to judge teacher “effectiveness”) as one of the key policy levers of reform. Here is the abstract:
Traditionally, policymakers have attempted to improve the quality of the teaching force by raising minimum credentials for entering teachers. Recent research, however, suggests that such paper qualifications have little predictive power in identifying effective teachers. We propose federal support to help states measure the effectiveness of individual teachers—based on their impact on student achievement, subjective evaluations by principals and peers, and parental evaluations. States would be given considerable discretion to develop their own measures, as long as student achieve- ment impacts (using so-called “value-added” measures) are a key component. The federal government would pay for bonuses to highly rated teachers willing to teach in high-poverty schools. In return for federal support, schools would not be able to offer tenure to new teachers who receive poor evaluations during their first two years on the job without obtaining district approval and informing parents in the schools. States would open further the door to teaching for those who lack traditional certification but can demonstrate success on the job. This approach would facilitate entry into teaching by those pursuing other careers. The new measures of teacher performance would also provide key data for teachers and schools to use in their efforts to improve their performance.
This paper, based on economists’ speculation about what works, became a justification often cited for the importance of minimizing teacher certification (“paper qualifications”) and factoring student test scores into teachers’ evaluations, which are a major–if not THE major–component of Race to the Top. The papers’ advocacy of opening the door to uncertified teachers has become a government priority, as shown by Arne Duncan’s award of $50 million to Teach for America (Gordon’s wife worked for TFA), although there is no evidence that TFA can replace the nation’s 3 million teachers and a growing body of evidence that TFA teachers are not more effective than other new teachers or veteran teachers. And since they are usually gone in two years, they have little lasting impact except to increase churn in the teaching staff.
Much has happened since Gordon, Kane, and Staiger speculated about how to identify effective teachers by performance measures such as student test scores. We now have evidence that these measures are fraught with error and instability. We now have numerous examples where teachers are evaluated based on the scores of students they never taught. We have numerous examples of teachers rated highly effective one year, but ineffective the next year, showing that what mattered most was the composition of their class, not their quality or effectiveness. Just recently, the American Statistical Association said: “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.”). In a joint statement, the National Academy of Education and the American Educational Research Association warned about the defects and limitations of VAM and showed that most of the factors that determine test scores are beyond the control of teachers. Numerous individual scholars have taken issue with the naive belief that teacher quality can be established by the test scores of their students, even when the computer matches as many variables as it can find.
What we don’t know is this: Has Robert Gordon changed his mind in light of evidence undermining his belief in VAM?
Or will the Obama administration continue on its now well-established course, demoralizing veteran teachers, lowering standards for entry-level teachers, dismissing the professional preparation of teachers, and creating new opportunities for the inexperienced, ill-trained recruits of TFA?
Having met Robert Gordon and knowing him to be a very smart person, I am betting that he will help the Obama administration change course and inject the wisdom of experience into its policies. That’s my hope.