Using VAM in High-Stakes Employment Decisions: As States Increasingly Apply Value-Added Modeling to Teacher Evaluations, Including Termination, Districts Should Proceed with Caution

By Paige, Mark | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Using VAM in High-Stakes Employment Decisions: As States Increasingly Apply Value-Added Modeling to Teacher Evaluations, Including Termination, Districts Should Proceed with Caution


Paige, Mark, Phi Delta Kappan


Incorporating student test results into teacher evaluations was virtually unknown just a few years ago. But that practice is now swiftly moving into state education regulations across the country, thanks to the influence of Race to the Top (RttT) funds. Very quickly, states are enacting new teacher evaluation systems that require student performance to account for some percentage of a teacher's annual evaluation. In Florida, 50% of a teacher's evaluation must be based on student performance scores and, in Michigan, student growth must be a "significant factor." Even states that are unencumbered by RttT, such as Wisconsin, have begun to develop teacher evaluation that incorporates value-added modeling (VAM).

In spite of the rush to embed VAM in state legislation, the validity of value-added modeling is far from proven. That has given rise to substantial debates about using VAMs in high-stakes employment decisions. Some researchers advise caution or avoidance (Hill, 2009). Others contend that VAMs are seaworthy enough to be used in termination decisions and, given the need to improve teacher quality, should be used (Hanushek, 2009).

What is sure is that using VAMs in high-stakes employment decisions such as firing a tenured teacher for poor performance will be challenged in the courts. The only question is when and where the court challenges will begin. District leaders should be aware of the interaction and potential legal pitfalls that may arise if VAMs are used to inform not only teacher evaluation but high-stakes employment decisions.

VAMs and tenure laws

While there is some difference among states, termination of a tenured teacher usually triggers a state's tenure law. Typically, tenure laws require that districts give the teacher some form of notice, a hearing, and a decision based on facts. Using VAM to support a tenured teacher's termination may be problematic from a number of perspectives. First, the research on the relationship between VAM and teacher effectiveness is murky. So, using VAMs as evidence of a teacher's poor performance is difficult. A teacher could argue that using VAMs to support a performance-based nonrenewal only clouds the picture, rather than clears it up. For instance, one study reported a disconnect between a teacher's value-added score and expert observations. Teachers with high-scoring, value-added measures didn't necessarily have solid instructional skills when observed by experts (Hill, Kapitula, & Unland, 2011). Thus, as a district tries to meet a burden to demonstrate that the tenured teacher was not performing, VAM may actually frustrate that position.

VAMs and collective bargaining agreements

Employment termination can arise for reasons unrelated to performance, such as a reduction in force (RIF) which typically occur for budgetary reasons and follow the terms set forth in a collective bargaining agreement between the teacher union and the district.

Typical collective bargaining agreements require that seniority be a factor in making employment decisions. However, by statute, states are trying to limit using seniority in such situations. In Florida, for example, schools are prohibited from relying on seniority as a sole factor, and teacher evaluations must be considered when making a RIF decision. Accordingly, the trend is to give discretion to teacher evaluations. Therefore, because teacher evaluations now tend to include student performance, VAMs necessarily are a point of discussion.

However, even in this context VAMs seem to cause more confusion than clarity on the point of teacher effectiveness. In other words, VAMs may even mask effective instruction (Hill, Kapitula, & Umland, 2011). If a layoff decision is based heavily on a teacher evaluation, which includes reliance on a VAM rating, expect considerable debate and, likely, a grievance. In the face of this confusion, the result will be that school officials may naturally rely on the one variable that is concrete: seniority. …

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