Zombie Satire and the Ministry of Value-Added

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George Orwell and Jonathan Swift appear to have come back from the dead and are now running the editorial board of the LA Times.

May 14’s Editorial announces, with the courage required of any modest proposal, that the LA Times has doubts about using value-added models based on student test scores to evaluate teachers.

The editorial notes, “This isn’t the first study to cast doubt on what has become a linchpin educational policy of the Obama administration but there’s an interesting element that lends its findings extra weight: It was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a well-known supporter of using test scores in teacher evaluations.”

And Orwell et al conclude by pointing to a key problem with these types of evaluations: “The problem is that, under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, states have been rushing to set up rubrics for judging teachers based, to a significant degree, on rigid use of test scores.”

Interesting note about the Gates Foundation’s involvement, to be sure. And you’ll get no argument from me about the problems with the U.S. Department of Education’s pressure to rush test-score based evaluations into practice.

But the most interesting element is left unstated. In Orwellian style, the past four years of LA Times reports and editorials have been dismissed without a whisper of mention or a hint of mea culpa. Readers unfamiliar with recent history might not realize that, after the Department of Education and the Gates Foundation, the LA Times has been the most prominent advocate for using test scores in teacher evaluations.

Not only did the Times commission their own value-added studyof LA’s teachers. Not only did the Times declare “value-added analysis offers the closest thing available to an objective assessment of teachers.” Not only did the Times disdain the judgments of principals and parents, and the results of periodic assessments when “seven years of [standardized] student test scores suggest otherwise.” Not only did the Times’ reporters present themselves as capable classroom evaluators, equipped by their value-added evaluations to find and write about evidence that supported the conclusions that had already been objectively determined by the statistical model. Not only did the Times release teacher’s scores to the public, creating enormous pressure on districts and states to rush to develop their own test-score based evaluations. Not only was the Times’ release of test scores praised by the Secretary of Educationin the Administration’s “first…support for a public airing of information about teacher performance,” thus suggesting that the Times may have even been responsible for pressuring the U.S. Department of Education to hurry up with this “objective”, “no-brainer” idea of  evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.

But the Times also deliberately misrepresented alternative views on value-added, (in)famously claiming that Derek Briggs’ study “confirms many Los Angeles Times findings on teacher effectiveness” in spite of the fact that the abstract of that study vehemently declared “the research on which the Los Angeles Times relied for its teacher effectiveness reporting was demonstrably inadequate to support the published rankings,” and had “serious weaknesses making the effectiveness ratings invalid and unreliable.”

All of this unstated backstory is really interesting. But it’s never mentioned.

As far as Orwell’s ongoing role on the editorial board, I’m not sure if the LA Times lacks the workforce that would be required to actually rewrite all of its previous advocacy of value-added, or if they are simply counting on our collective laziness and amnesia to help us ignore this humiliating about-face.

But I have to admit. I remain a fan of Orwell’s earlier work, when the lies were more out in the open, in-your-face, and honest:

On the sixth day of Hate Week, after the processions, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters…when the great orgasm was quivering to its climax and the general hatred of Eurasia had boiled up… — at just this moment it had been announced that Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally.

There was, of course, no admission that any change had taken place. Merely it became known, with extreme suddenness and everywhere at once, that Eastasia and not Eurasia was the enemy.

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5 thoughts on “Zombie Satire and the Ministry of Value-Added

  1. Excellent post, Kevin. The historical amnesia underlying the Times’s editorial is stunning. They were a big part of what created the whole mess in the first place.

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