This NYT story Monday has sparked all sorts of accusations and counter-accusations around the web. Joel Klein is a devil! The union is awful! It’s Tuskegee all over again! Basically, the NYC Department of Education is collecting value-added data on some teachers there. Toward what end? Well, there seems to be a lot of confusion about this and that’s the rub.
Let’s start with the ridiculous. Even linking this to Tuskegee, albeit en passant as Eduwonkette does is preposterous and cheapens the horror of what happened there. Likewise, as she also does, implying that collecting this data constitutes some sort of experiment that runs afoul of the “Hippocratic Oath” of researchers is just silly. By that logic, all these various studies with panel data, choice studies using lotteries, etc…all constitute human experimentation and are wrong. C’mon.
More seriously, like many others, I have a lot of reservations about whether value-added data like this is (a) ready for prime-time in terms of consequence-oriented decisions outside of the absolute lowest-performers and (b) what the downstream effects of those decisions could be. On the latter, I’m hardly a slipperly slope guy, but just as some ill-concieved merit pay plans put the ice on reforming teacher compensation for a generation, a trigger-happy approach here could similarly set back efforts to use data to help evaluate teachers. That doesn’t mean that any system using value-added is inherently flawed, I can think of several ways to use it that would make sense, only that treading lightly here is important.
So I have no idea what New York plans to do with the data, but just gathering it hardly constitutes the egregious offense it’s being made out to be. Moreover, if it allows for some inferences around credentials, experience, or other variables then all the better. And if it can inform evaluation schemes down the road, that’s for the good, too.
But until we know more, everyone needs to take a deep breath and tone it down.
Update: Eduwonkette responds. Her position here would be a lot more compelling if (a) this were an actual experiment in the way she and other anti-Klein partisans are seeking to describe it rather than what it is. In addition –and again– the fact is that we don’t know what they are doing with the data so at this point all these leaps to various consequences are unfounded. I can see how someone could make the most literal case that these are human subjects etc…but in the current context I don’t buy it (b) there were not a contract in place that protects teachers from unilateral action and (c) if the only principal actually on the record on this issue in The Times hadn’t said:
“This should simply be one more way to think about things,” said Frank A. Cimino, the principal of P.S. 193 in Brooklyn, who said he was participating in the experiment. “It is going to tell you some things you don’t know, but it will miss the other things that go on in a classroom.”
That’s pretty sensible and hardly in-line with the sky is falling rhetoric here. He should have a blog.