Angela Danovi’s mother taught in the Memphis public schools for 29 years. She just retired.

Angela knows how many lives her mother changed, how many daily acts of kindness shaped her students.

And she knows that William Sanders, the statistician who invented value-added modeling or VAM, has never been able to create a measure that would accurately reflect what her mother accomplished.

This is what she sent me:

Dear Diane,

My mother retired today. I am both sad and pleased. Yesterday, I wrote the following piece on my facebook page as the daughter of a single parent who taught school in Memphis City Schools. I wanted to share my post with you.

This evening, my mom will be retired from Memphis City Schools after 29 consecutive years. She also taught in Arkansas and Mississippi as well as worked as a daycare director prior to working for MCS. Yes, I’m going to go political now. As you can imagine, I have found the “ed reform” movement highly and personally offensive. The paycheck she brought home financed me to do ballet, play sports, go to camp, go to UT (University of Tennessee). In turn, I have assisted in teaching ballet, assisted in coaching sports, had the opportunity to walk on as a shot put thrower at UT, worked for 8 summers as a camp counselor, and ended up receiving 2 degrees in the environmental sciences and now serve as a projects manager for a nonprofit. Yet, somehow being the daughter of a single parent teacher has in many people’s minds disqualified me from having a credible opinion or legitimate argument on the matter. I just want to say, I have read the original paper on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment Model that was originally written in 1984 and unabashedly touted from my alma mater! The authors were statisticians, not educators, and their original model was applied to three elementary schools in East Tennessee, which is a very very different scenario from an urban high school setting! Yet, even in the original model each teacher’s “value added score” was based on at least 6 different variables per student, resulting in over 180 variables to determine the “value” a single teacher in a single classroom in a given year added to those students’ experience. Over the last 30 years this model has been expanded and increased in complexity to include every conceivable educational environment including special ed and high schools where teachers see their students less than 1 hour per day or less than 1/24th of their day or less than 4% of each day in a student’s life! Yet this model has been applied towards firing and destroying the lives and families of professional educators. Meanwhile, numerous articles have been published statistically and scientifically demonstrating the inherent flaws, misuse, and abuse of this model. I have argued that the variables that are input for climate and weather models are less complex and rely on fewer and more stable variables to predict or measure outcomes than what has been inputted into the value added education models!

The last few years I was deeply concerned that my mother was one tweaked evaluation formula and one set of tweaked test scores away from being named a “lemon” and on her way out the door. Teachers, especially teachers who have worked in the settings in which my mom has worked, have become demonized as moochers, takers, and a boil of society turning out products useless for today’s economy. However, I have been with my mom when meeting her former students who were working for Memphis Police, Memphis fire, construction, professional managers for Starbucks, workers in dry cleaners, workers in Walgreens, and others in a myriad of locations and professions earning paychecks, contributing to the tax base, and making the Memphis and Shelby County area businesses and organizations run every day. When you hear Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Michelle Rhee, Oprah, representatives of the Walton Family Foundation, and others talk about “ineffective” teachers or having only “highly effective” teachers in the classroom what those people are really saying is career educators are not worthy to be in the classroom today. They are saying people who are educators and their families are not worthy of a stable paycheck, health insurance, sick leave, or a retirement in their personal and professional lives. To be clear, these issues, along with due process, are what teachers’ “unions” (which if you can’t strike it’s hardly a union) and professional associations were fighting for. This uncertainty coupled with constant professional attack is not a way for any individual or family to have to live.

My mother was lucky, in this emerging Ed Reform movement, to have landed at a school that tested well. She could have easily been at a different school in a different part of town working with an entirely different population of students who came from even far more adverse backgrounds, and she could have just as easily been “evaluated” at the bottom rather than top. She definitely taught in those schools, just not at a time when those kids were being tested and those scores being perversely used against the teacher in the classroom, or in other words, likely the only person in those students’ lives who had educationally accomplished what the ed reformers say we are expecting and demanding all students to accomplish regardless of any other circumstances.

I am proud of what my mother accomplished in her time in teaching in Memphis City Schools. I saw her teach to classrooms filled with the urban youth of Memphis. I listened to her tell stories of teaching girls in high schools who have escaped from countries of war and famine to hold a pencil for the first time and try to navigate the high school educational system when they had never before been to school. A statistician such as William Sanders, one of the originators of the Value Added Model, may not find a very high value in the body of work or the thousands of students my mother taught based on those students’ ultimate educational attainment or their paychecks or the paychecks of their children, but she has certainly had a profound an immense impact (for many years in un airconditioned classrooms) on the city of Memphis and the students of Memphis.

Angela Danovi