What is the Value in a High Value-Added Teacher?

by Guest Blogger
January 12th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

Great news emerged this week for elementary- and middle-school teachers who make gains in their students test scores.  While the teachers themselves may not be pulling down big salaries, their efforts result in increased earnings for their students. In a study that tracked 2.5 million students for over 20 years, researchers found that good teachers have a long-lasting positive effect on their students’ lives, including those higher salaries, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and higher college matriculation rates.

I’m a practical person.  I understand that we spend billions of dollars educating our children and that the taxpayer deserves some assurance that the money is not being squandered.  Accountability matters.  I get it.  Still, as a teacher, it’s hard not to feel a little bit wistful, perhaps even wince a little, reading this study.

It’s important to remember that its authors, Raj Chetty, John N. Freidman, and Jonah E. Rockoff, are all economists. Their study measures tangible, economic outcomes from what they call high versus low “value-added” teachers. This “value-added” approach, which is defined as “the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores,” may work for measuring such measurable outcomes as future earnings, but it misses so much of the point of education.

I asked my Uncle Michael, a professor of law and economics, what he thought of the study, and he compared the proponents of the study’s mathematical economic approach to education to acolytes of The Who’s Tommy, pinball wizards who “sought to isolate themselves from the world so as to improve their perception of a very narrow sliver of that world. The entire ‘assessment’ enterprise defiles education as that word once meant.”

He attempted to explain his feelings about the study in terms of mathematical equations – something to do with linear regression thinking and educational outcomes, but I got lost in the Y = a + bX + errors of it all.

Tim Ogburn, 5th grade teacher in California, phrases the debate a bit more simply: Why are we educating children?

His answer goes like this: Until fairly recently, teachers would have answered that they were educating children to become good Americans or good citizens, but now we seem to teach only to prepare elementary- and middle-school children for high paying jobs. When money figures into the goal, we lose so much along the way, such as curiosity, a love of learning for its own sake, and an awareness that many of the most worthwhile endeavors (both personally and socially) are not those with the highest monetary rewards.

To which I reply: Hear, hear. If economic gain is the measure of our success, we have lost sight our goals in education.

In order to round out the definition of “value” as defined by Chetty’s study, I conducted my own research project. Sure, my sample was smaller – about thirty versus Chetty’s 2.5 million, and the duration of my study was three days rather than 20 years…and of course there might just have been a wee bit of selection bias in my Facebook sampling. Oh, and I chose not to apply Uncle Michael’s formulas because they gave me a headache.

The goal of my study was to find out what some of the other, less measurable benefits of good teaching. I asked people to write in with examples of good teaching, teaching that has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. Who were their “high value-added” teachers?

Sarah Pinneo, a writer from New Hampshire, recalled her third grade teacher, who took her aside one day and said, “You are going to be a writer. Here’s your portfolio. Every poem you finish, we’re going to save it in here.” Sarah’s first novel will be released on February first, and she still has that poetry portfolio.

Carol Blymire, a food writer and public relations executive in Washington, D.C, recalled her kindergarten teacher “who taught me that letters make words and words make sentences…and is the reason I love to write today.” She counts among her low value-added teachers, “Every other teacher reprimanded me for asking questions that came across as challenging them, even though it was really my way of wanting to know more and understand the bigger picture.”

My favorite example came from Dr. Jeffrey Fast, an English teacher in Massachusetts.

“One morning, when I was a senior, we were discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the interaction among the characters. Immediately after I spoke, [my teacher] responded by saying – for all to hear: ‘I like you!’ His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark – for both me and my peers – something insightful. I felt enormously rewarded. That was the benchmark that I tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever afterwards. That was 50 years ago. He never knew that those three words catapulted me – to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!”

While the studies of economists may add to the discussion about what makes teachers valuable in our lives, I believe that if we reduce teachers’ value to dollars and cents, we run the risk of becoming, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “the kind of people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”




  1. Bravo. You’ve nailed it. Thanks for writing this, a refreshing burst of common sense on the Piece Everyone’s Writing About.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 12, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

  2. Great post, Jessica. That Oscar Wilde, pretty insightful individual, wasn’t he?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 12, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

  3. Are we really reducing the value of teachers through value added equations? When I have looked at who is profiled in the LA Times though their value added analysis I see teachers that are like the educators you profile above. I get a sense from your post that you don’t think these same teacher would have high scores. I think what we may find as we analyze more deeply find that those teachers that most inspire kids are also those who know how help kids both respond to these tests and succeed in life and love learning.

    Also a challenge to your idea that education is reduced to a good paying job, nothing about these tests tell us a child will or can get a good paying job, they are really indications of the minimum a child needs to know. I love the idea of education for its own sake, but that never paid the mortgage, car payment or provided health insurance. Most of us work because we need to meet basic needs, as will most of the children you teach. Teachers do have obligations to the children that they teach to provide them broad enough skill set in writing, reading and numeracy that they can have a job, children and their parents need to find the ethic in themselves to value knowledge, creativity and hard work.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 12, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

  4. Thank you, DC Parent!

    Comment by tim-10-ber — January 12, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  5. DC Parent, I don’t think we are reducing the value of teachers through equations, in fact, I think that economists have much to add to the discussion and may, in the end, have something to say about what makes a teacher great. My job, as a teacher and a writer, is to talk about what I observe and stimulate a dialogue. So done, and done. I love the debate, and isn’t the debate how we get at the answers? Over at my blog, I paired this article with a painting of Plato and Socrates, and their dialogues epitomize the vitality of a healthy philosophical debate on the nature of education, just what I hope to stimulate here.

    So thank you very much for your part in the debate!

    Comment by Jess — January 12, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

  6. Actually, the most interesting part of the Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff study is precisely the most banal- teachers who improve their students learning as measured by increased achievement on standardized tests also improve other more distant and relevant factors in children’s lives.

    This seems obvious to anyone who isn’t vehemently anti-testing. For a large group of the anti-testing regime, there is considerable skepticism that the standardized testing intruments being used by states is a valid instrument for the “real” purposes of education. In fact, the line of thinking in this post is a close relative to this critique. Essentially, what is mathematically reliable is not necessarily valid for drawing conclusions.

    CFR in a massive study essentially: 1) Added to a large research base that suggests that teachers can in fact have an impact on standardized test scores; 2) Demonstrate that the impact on standardized test scores are associated with broader, more distant, and, arguably, more importnat education outcomes; 3) These impacts are persistent throughout the lifetime of students.

    While it does NOT make a great case for teacher dismissal based solely on VAM, like the authors are essentially claiming in popular coverage, it does continue to strengthen the case that standardized tests are relevant, reliable, and meaningful indicators of a successful education system. The impacts on social outcomes (teen pregnancy) and economic outcomes (later earnings) show a broad range of important outcomes we expect from schools are strongly associated with VAMs.

    A good measure does not have to perfectly describe the intracacies of reality, it just has to give a rough, reasonable, and valid facisimile. CFR is just part of a growing tradition that shows there’s a good case for VAMs to be a part of that image.

    Comment by Jason — January 13, 2012 @ 12:56 am

  7. [...] Lahey wrote an interesting post over on Core Knowledge Blog that I decided to comment [...]

    Pingback by Value-Added on Core Knowledge Blog– some thoughts on Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff | jasonpbecker — January 13, 2012 @ 1:08 am

  8. Just for the record, my you-are-a-writer 3rd grade teacher would almost certainly have scored well in a testing-based evaluation system, too. Those teachers who anecdotally change lives may often be the same ones who can deliver a lesson plan effectively. Heart and skill will find its way into the data.

    Comment by Pinneo — January 13, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  9. This is one of those things (the list gets longer every day) that I could argue round or flat. I tend to agree that inspiration and test scores are probably more related than not. That said, I’ve become disquieted by the impact of testing. I recently spent a day in a good charter school. Fiercely committed, energetic staff. Data-focused. Good curriculum. But they work with a high-poverty population and they’re taking heat on their test scores. So even though they know that language growth is slow. Even though they totally get the connection between background knowledge and comprehension, they’re increasingly in test prep and skills work in an effort to goose their scores. I’ve made this observation often: accountability was meant to make bad schools emulate good ones. But too often, the opposite happens: it makes good schools like the one I describe, act like a bad one. Similarly I worry that what makes teachers inspiring and motivating can come out in the wash when they are being pressured to goose scores and resort to shoddy practices to do so. I do not think that good teaching and accountability are at odds. So why do I keep seeing it look that way in so many schools?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 13, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  10. I agree testing is an important barometer, I would go as far as essential, but I would also say not sufficient to school success. Similarly I would say the same thing about successful teachers. As a parent I am comfortable in using test scores to measure some level of success, but I don’t personally see it as the complete indicator that a school is doing the right thing because the test scores also correlate with income. Frankly well off parents should be asking more questions than they do about how well their kids are being served.

    Despite my challenge above I do believe we need to study these teachers that are having great outcomes and ask what are they doing to critically changes the outcome of the children in their classrooms. But here is my question to teachers, are they ready to change their practices in light of what may be found? Are teachers and their unions because they are the ones with the money to do the studies prepared to look that closely at their profession? This includes things like how teachers engage the curriculum, expand on the curriculum within the class, collaborate with other teachers. Are they prepared for a potentially more hierarchical structure that creates master teachers and longer apprenticeships if necessary? I read this column and Ms. Lahey’s entries in particular because I see a reflective teacher that views teaching as a craft in the way that Steve Job’s opines on the back of the cabinet, but she is not the norm so how do we get enough teachers that are able to follow such a teacher to build more successful classrooms?

    Comment by DC Parent — January 13, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

  11. I think this objection is moving the goalpost, so to speak. Previous complaints about VAM have centered on the relentless focus on teacher improving test scores. Now, a link between teachers’ impact on test scores, and its connection to long-term labor market outcomes, has been established, which is phenomenally difficult to do, and the objection now is some platitude about producing “better citizens”, despite the fact that almost every school that I’ve visited has some graphic demonstrating the association between high school–>college graduation–>lifetime earnings.

    This parallels the objections to using VAM in teacher evaluations.
    1. Well, let’s just do classroom observations by peers and teachers. (No, too subjective and teachers have different kids! Besides, the principal has it out for me.)
    2. OK. Well, let’s just compare test scores for each teacher. (No! Teachers have different kids with different needs with different incoming achievement levels. The Elementary/Middle school they came from did a very poor job getting the kid to grade level).
    3. OK. Let’s adjust for incoming achievement somehow. (No! Achievement doesn’t capture everything! What about economically disadvantaged kids and kids struggling to learn English!)
    4. OK. Let’s get a little more complicated and adjust for all of those factors in a very complicated algorithm. (No way! VAM is too sensitive and unstable and complicated!)
    5. OK…..

    The lesson being that the more sophisticated and accommodating social scientists get in addressing reasonable concerns about identifying effective teachers and their importance, the more difficult these objections are to resolve and require, it is important to note, econometricians and statisticians to parse.

    Comment by Marshall — January 13, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

  12. @Marshall,

    I agree with most of your “objections.”

    How about a test at the beginning and end of the year and then calculating the PERCENTAGE of growth each student gains (or doesn’t)? Some will contend “lower” students actually have a better chance of improving because of their September scores.

    As well, any chance of involving unions in this equation by demanding random (equitable) placement of all students so no teacher continuously gets the most at-risk students? Sure, there will be parents screaming bloody murder on this concept but if they don’t like it, they can always opt for the closest charter school.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 15, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  13. @Paul Hoss-

    Both excellent recommendations. But, isn’t that pre-test their score from the prior year? What is different from administering during the subsequent school year? Their performance on this BOY will be a function of their prior teacher and other things, just as it would be from the prior year assessment.

    Although, I think randomization, while desirable from a research perspective, carries some normative baggage that can only really be handled by the district, community, and unions. That is, is randomization “fair?” In every school, teachers know which teacher, and in which grade and subject, they would want “their” kid assigned. Do we want to dis-empower administrators and faculty and, even, parents, from their ability to place students/kids into the classes that they think they will be most successful? Although randomization may be “fair” for teachers and ideal for people like me, I’m not sure how “fair” this would be for students (actually, this is arguable, since this would remove the non-random component of “active parent” from the discussion, so that a kid with “non-active” parents has the same chance of being assigned an effective teacher as one with an “active parent”). Thankfully, even in the presence of this non-randomization, works like the Chetty piece tackle many of these issues but, frankly, I’m not confident that a lot of VAM systems adopted by school districts do.

    Comment by Marshall — January 15, 2012 @ 11:54 am

  14. @Marshall,

    “What is different from administering during the subsequent school year?” SUMMER. Some kids will not only retain most/all from their previous grade level, they’ll actually grow/develop over the 10-12 weeks of summer. As we know, other kids don’t, and some even lose ground over the summer. Hence, the necessity of testing at the very beginning and end of the year.

    Randomization is the only “fair” way to address the politics of placement. There are simply too many parents who have nothing on which to base their “request” other than rumor/innuendo. They’ve never spent a minute in the rooms of the following grade’s teachers. In addition, why should the helicopter parents always get the teacher of their choice? And the “non-active” parents get stuck with the what’s left? Not fair. Random placements should also come with the territory (of linking student tests to teacher evaluations as part of a mixed measures approach). If school boards and central office folk believe that strongly in the importance/relevance of student tests in evaluating teachers (as I do), they must then make the process fair in the only manner available to them – random student placements. If a teacher has a job in the district they should be capable of handling the broad spectrum if children in the school. If they cannot, why are they getting the same pay as the teacher who can? Beyond that, why do they still have a job in the district (just being devils advocate here)?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 15, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

  15. As a former teacher who worked in a variety of classroom settings (including high and low income schools), I view with skepticism any study that purports to be able to isolate the effectiveness of a teacher while controlling for all confounding variables. In my experience, effective teaching is a combination of teacher skill and experience, students who come to school motivated, well-nourished and ready to learn, supportive administrative personnel, effective school policies and supportive parents and guardians.

    These are the multiple legs supporting the metaphorical stool of student achievement. I find it very hard to believe that any study has been able to control for all the other “legs” of the stool, in order to isolate the effect of the particular teacher. Especially given the fact that most schools do not use strictly random assignment of students, and that principals have almost total discretionary power to assign teachers to any particular classroom, grade or subject, I find it hard to believe that a study can confidently assert that Teacher X is a ‘more effective’ teacher than Teacher Y. Maybe the principal just likes Teacher X more and has consistently put the better-behaved kids in his class, or maybe Teacher X has only one subject to prepare/teach each day, but Teacher Y has three different subjects, which requires three times the prep time each week.

    Having worked in multiple schools, and having seen the multiple ways that the administration, parents, other students and simply random luck can affect the teacher’s ability to teach effectively, I just can’t buy the conclusions of any study that purports to be able to isolate teaching effectiveness.

    Comment by Attorney DC — January 18, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

  16. I believe that all teachers should be able to instill knowledge, drive, and determination into their students. Those teachers that care enough about their students to make that special effort to encourage them to look for their niches and build on them, would most definitely pass any evaluation. I have dealt with teachers that only seem to be in the field for sake of having a job. Then I have met those you have dedicated their lives to improving the lives of their students in more ways than just an education. True teachers teach the complete concept from academics to being good citizens to just being great people who cares about others. These are the teachers that can stand tall through any and all evaluations.

    Comment by Angela Adams — January 18, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

  17. When I was growing up, I heard the saying on the television, “Money is the root to all evil”. Just reading your post that memory came flooding back. We live in a time where everyone wants more and some people do not care the means that it takes to get more. When I entered this profession, I always told myself that my goal for teaching is to make a difference. I always felt that if at least 1 life was changed by the job I was doing, I would be satisfied. I have been teaching for 5 years and so much has changed with education since I started. It seems that we no longer want to have fun and learn using creative and engaging ideas. Many people are pushing for all the students to be at a certain level and have a certain percentage of students pass these high stakes testing. Teaching is not fun when the only goal is to train students to try to make the most money possible. My goal of teaching has not changed. I want to teach my students to be great citizens. Because they are learning these skills I know they will grow up and be successful individuals.

    Comment by LaVisha — January 18, 2012 @ 11:49 pm

  18. @LaVisha: Funny, I was just, barely five minutes ago, talking about that phrase in my English class. It is the opening quote in “The Pardoner’s Tale” section of The Canterbury Tales, and it’s one of the quotes I teach for biblical literacy. I had not connected the two until now, so thanks. Another reason to keep teaching “Radix malorum est Cupiditas.”

    Comment by Jess — January 19, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  19. @Angela, many people do not understand that teaching is not choosing one strategy, or using one idea, or having a goal for the students. When we walk into the classroom, teachers do not think about teaching students so that they can grow up and make lots of money. I also believe that teachers should instill knowledge and drive, and this will mold our students into great citizens in our society.

    Comment by LaVisha — January 22, 2012 @ 12:11 am

  20. @ Jess, great minds think alike :) People need to realize money does not fulfill a person’s life. We need to teach our students skills that will make them hardworking and determined to become successful in life. I know when I walk in the classroom; I don’t think about how much money I want them in make in the future. There are more important things in life and I will continue to be the teacher that wants to make a difference in the lives of my students and not focus on their future income.

    Comment by LaVisha — January 22, 2012 @ 12:23 am

  21. […] What is the Value in a High Value-Added Teacher? is from The Core Knowledge blog. […]

    Pingback by The Best Posts On The NY Times-Featured Teacher Effectiveness Study | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… — April 16, 2014 @ 2:28 am

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