Simplifying the Value-Added Debate

One reason the fight over education reform has produced a startlingly small amount of insight, understanding, and well-intentioned debate is that both sides continue to dance around the big questions.  Those opposed to value-added measures merely cite specific examples where accountability proves inaccurate and costly. Those in favor of using metrics to rate teachers cite specific examples where ignoring them is costly.  The focus on arbitrary counter-examples pulls the debate away from where it should be.

There are two key questions at the heart of the issue.  First, does the efficiency that results from rewarding teachers to bring about a certain results (in this case, test scores) outweigh the inefficiencies — cases where good teachers are punished or test scores are not reflective of student learning? Second, is this an equitable way to create change? Does it harm a certain set of teachers or students?

The debate should not stray from the two key points of utility and equity. Until the talking heads, administrators, op-ed writers, and researches are willing to talk about education reform through the lens of these two issues, the debate will continue to be a trite political back-and-forth where both sides demonize each other instead of discussing the merits of their positions.

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