Value-Added Models in Education and the Value of Terminology

One way to improve education recommended by many “reformers” is the use of “value-added models” or criteria to evaluate teacher performance. If you’re not familiar with the concept of value-added models in education, it means, in practical terms, that teachers are judged by how much their teaching improves a student’s scores on a standardized test from the beginning to the end of a year. Certainly, it is fairer to judge a teacher by comparing the scores of a particular class of students over time than simply comparing end of year scores for all students across all classes of a certain grade and different schools without a baseline. The composition of classes, the level of student prior knowledge or even familiarity with the English language, and so many other factors may vary greatly from class or school to school. This makes it extremely difficult to actually assess how much one class of students has learned in the course of a school year compared to another, and even more difficult to determine how much the teacher is responsible for that learning. Many supporters of value-added models argue for their position by correlating a student’s potential increase in test scores with an increase in future earnings. But think for a minute about just the terminology. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds it totally offensive to speak of “adding value” to students. As if you could (or should) monetize a person’s worth, like you monetize a piece of merchandise. We all know, I hope, what happens when we think of people as merchandise.


As educators, you can’t say, “I didn’t mean it like that.” Whether you mean it like that or not, the imagery of “value-added” turns students into items of production with a dollar value at the end. And I think the imagery anyone uses is not random; it reveals the perspective a person is taking on an issue.


A teacher’s attitude towards a child’s ability influences how well that child will learn in the classroom.  Likewise, how a culture thinks about and acts towards it’s young people will influence not only how well they learn and develop as teenagers but how they will think of themselves throughout their lives.  What does a child feel when treated as merchandise by “its” culture? How does a “product“ treat a “product”? I don’t think I’d want to walk down a street filled with people who think of themselves and others primarily in terms of monetary value. It would be too dangerous.


Some may argue, “Ok, the terminology is bad, but the reality is helpful. Even you admit that value-added evaluations are better than the alternative of not using a baseline.” It’s better than the alternative but it’s not good enough, especially if we want the goal to be educating students to be clear thinkers able to participate successfully and ethically, even compassionately, in their communities as citizens, workers, friends and neighbors. Value-added tests are not effective assessments, and in terms of educational practice they have too many negative side effects.  Any dependence on a standardized test as the central vehicle to judge learning or evaluate a teacher is flawed, even when the terminology used to describe the value of the tests is not offensive.


Value-added models are derived from business practices. For a business, it might be considered good procedure to fire a third of the workers when the business is not making a profit. It might also be good financially to fire the lowest performing students and teachers to raise the “efficiency” of a school system. I’d like to say that this won’t occur, but isn’t that one of the purposes of value-added models? Teachers adding the least “value” to their students are being threatened with losing their jobs; and if the claim by Diane Ravitch and others is correct, the most “problematic” students in some non-public schools, are also being “fired” or pushed out.


I’m heartened by the outcry against the use of standardized tests to assess students and hold teachers accountable, but where is the outcry against the dehumanizing mentality of “adding value” to students?

Thought Distortions and the Negativity Bias

How often do you teach a class or do something, do anything, and afterwards all you can think about is what you might have messed up? I recently led a ninety-minute workshop on different teaching strategies for a group of teachers. After the workshop and the thank yous and other compliments were over, I had a few minutes of being on my own, excited and happy about what I had done. And then, wham; I started thinking about one of the few things I didn’t do so well. All sorts of imagined negative judgments from people in the workshop jumped into my mind. It’s good that I’m fairly proficient at letting things go. But why did my mind jump to the negative?


There’s a so-called “negativity bias,” which causes humans to remember negative memories before positive ones. As described by Dr. Julie Haizlip et al, “humans are more attentive to and are more influenced by the negative aspects of their environment than by the positive.” I understand that this bias has great survival value. If we’re ultrasensitive to what might hurt us, then we will be ready to fight it off. The negativity is just the face of the fight-flight-freeze response. But this negativity jumps in even when the threat is imagined, when it’s social, not physical, or even when there’s just a small chance of being true. It is almost as if the mind creates the negative to fend off something even worse.


This bias interferes not only with clear thinking but clear perception. So, in a way, it can make us more, not less, susceptible to being hurt, and the primary hurt is self-generated.


Let’s say you’re a teacher in a class and the students are giving you a hard time. Young people can zero in on your vulnerabilities extremely well. Your frustration builds until it becomes anger and you’re about to explode, or “lose it.” What are you losing? It’s not “control” so much as awareness. You are afraid and angry at your own fear, which you then direct to the students. They are the threat and your response is a classic flight-flight-freeze response. Your thinking gets narrowed and only takes in what reinforces the sense of being attacked. You don’t notice how you create a narrative in your mind. You call yourself all sorts of names and imagine other people saying all sorts of things about you. And how does your narrative portray you? As a successful teacher? I don’t think so. You want to attack, escape, or hide and just get it over with.


This, too, is the negativity bias. We interpret reality as a threat, our thinking obscures and narrows and we lose awareness of our mental process. I remember another incident where this happened to me. It was in a middle school class near the beginning of the school year. One of the students asked what I interpreted as a facetious question. At first, I thought he was just trying to push my buttons. Then my mind quieted and I realized that maybe he needed to see someone face a challenge without anger and fear. Maybe he needed me to be someone different from what he knew at home. I realized that this situation was exactly why I was a teacher. This was what I was meant to deal with. I asked him if he was being facetious. He said he didn’t know the word so we looked up the meaning. I said I would never be facetious with the class, and asked what had teachers done in the past that was most helpful to them. And then I told a story from my own life about being threatened by a gang and how I dealt with it. The whole atmosphere in the room changed. Instead of joining the student mood of attack, I was present and kind. Teaching does not often conform to our images of what we’d like it be, and we can’t always conform to our images of who we think we should be. I chose awareness even when the object of awareness was painful. Kindness, taking a larger perspective, and awareness are powerful teaching tools.


This insight can help teachers with students who think everything they do must be “perfect.” Possibly all teachers know of students whose perfectionism is so extreme that they can barely turn in an assignment. A perfectionist wraps her or himself in a tight circle guarded by very strong narratives, and won’t step out of that circle for fear of reprisal.


Actually, I think we need to re-think the “negativity bias.” The bias arises as a component of a certain way of interpreting and responding to the world. It has to do with how I create a sense of myself. Notice how, after the workshop that I taught, I went from feeling really good to feeling bad. When I felt good, my self-image was glorious. When I felt attacked, my image was awful. When we feel ourselves as a thing enclosed in a bubble of skin, which separates us from the world, then we easily feel threatened, alien, insecure. A bubble easily bursts. Any good feelings must of necessity soon be followed by ones of threat.


So, what can we do? We can learn and teach the basics of cognitive therapy or how to identify and talk back to thought distortions like overgeneralizing, personalizing, jumping to conclusions. This is tremendously empowering. We need to learn and teach how to stay with awareness, to hear the comments we make in our mind and recognize the physical sensations of fear and threat. When we do so, the fear does not take hold of us because we do not turn away. Our attention is on noticing and not on living the narrative. This is mindfulness practice, learning to be continuously aware not only of what we are giving our attention to, but how. It develops empathy and kindness. When students exercise empathy for others, they can apply it to themselves. Being kind to others relaxes the borders of their circle. And if they can learn how to see their own thoughts and behavior from a variety of perspectives, not just one, then they will be more likely to let go of the narratives of threat.


Responding to noise with quiet, to a lack of awareness with awareness, or to someone else’s fear and anger with kindness and empathy, can make a tough day into a remarkable one.

Habits of Mind

In the 1990s, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick wrote a series of books on fostering habits of mind that assist the learning process. I, and many teachers that I worked with, greatly benefitted from their approach. The books argued that if students learned these habits, then they would be able to successfully put in the type of effort that leads to deep learning. The habits included persisting, striving for accuracy, thinking flexibly, managing impulsivity, listening with understanding and empathy, thinking about thinking, responding with wonderment and awe, etc. This approach is being revived today and I think it is a tremendous step, hopefully indicating an increased understanding of the necessity to teach the social and emotional aspects of learning. I would make minor adjustments, such as adding patience to persisting, and gratitude to responding with wonderment and awe. And I’d ask: Is it accurate and beneficial to call these mental processes or qualities of mind “habits”? Are the habits separate and discrete? Or are they merely different ways to view one quality of mind or experience? And what is the most efficacious way to teach what the habits teach us?


Costa and Kallick describe many excellent methods for teaching these habits. For example, you can use “word splashes” or brainstorms on the meanings of the habit. You can use questioning strategies that help students elucidate and analyze a problem, and you can incorporate the habits into rubrics students can use to reflect on their thinking process.


We teach through modeling. To help teach reflection, for example, we model awareness, honesty and humanity in the class.  We need to admit what and when we don’t really know something or if we get something wrong. If we want to teach flexibility or hearing with empathy, for example, then we teach with those qualities. When there is any doubt about what a student means in his or her analysis of a passage in a text, for example, we don’t just assume we understand what a student means; we paraphrase and then ask for confirmation.


Other ways to teach these qualities that I use include linking class content and student concerns. By asking students to work on questions that are meaningful and important to them, we can stimulate the student’s own striving for accuracy, curiosity, and ability to think flexibly and critically.


Costa and Kallick state that the habits work together. Thinking critically, for example, is a complex and multifaceted mental process and is best taught as a whole process. I think it begins with clarifying the problem or question and careful observation. Then gathering and immersing yourself in the material, presenting and questioning evidence and theories, mindful awareness and reflection on your process, incubation or stepping back to gain some perspective. And, finally, stating and testing a synthesis or conclusion. It involves not one but possibly all of the beneficial habits Costa and Kallick describe.


And I recommend teaching the habits experientially, with mindful meditation. Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Just let your body settle, relax. Pick a place to put your attention, like maybe the area around your eyes. Just feel the muscles around your eyes. Can you feel how your body, very subtly, expands as you breathe in? Just notice it. And as you breathe out, can you feel your eyes relax, settle down, let go of any tension?  Just feel that for a minute.


Give the following directions or ask the following questions one at a time, with patience.


Now, think of a time that you were very patient, or you witnessed someone else being patient. Just observe yourself or the person. What did you or this person do? What actions did she or he take? What qualities did you or this other person show? How do you think the person felt while being patient? How do you feel when you’re patient? How does it feel when someone is patient with you?


Now just sit for a minute with the feeling of patience.


When you practice this meditation, notice what you feel at the end. Patience does not stand by itself. It comes along with other qualities of mind, more than I could sum up, qualities like calmness and clarity of thought. You manage impulsivity, for example, by first monitoring it, or by allowing awareness of how the impulsivity is specifically arising moment-by-moment in your body and mind. If you get absorbed in your internal comments or become judgmental of yourself for “having” the impulsivity, or if you don’t allow the awareness of what is going on to fully arise, you become lost. You manage nothing.


And this is true with all the “habits.” They are different aspects of awareness of what and how we “pay” attention. To start learning habits of mind, allow into awareness, “How am I thinking, now? What habits am I using now?” One of the habits, for example, is “thinking about thinking” or metacognition. We could also call it “attending to thinking” to avoid using the word ‘thinking’ too ambiguously. What is the goal of attending to our thinking? Is it an intellectual analysis of how our thinking could be improved? Or is it actually thinking consciously and clearly? The two are not necessarily the same, any more than eating a meal and the description of the tastes are the same.  Analysis is based on memory and is an after-the-fact commenting on conscious experience. The other is direct experience. The former depends on the latter. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to be aware of direct experience, or our moment-by-moment quality of attention. This includes, as we pointed out with “impulsivity,” being aware and open to whatever arises, even confusion, anxiety, or fear. Without developing this clear awareness of direct experience, metacognition is handicapped.


The habits of mind bring attention to important mental processes or qualities of mind. However, these “habits” are not discrete and separate. They arise and work together. And to fully utilize a complex mental process, you need clear awareness of your own mental state. Mindfulness meditation provides a wonderful method to develop this clear and direct awareness.


Energizing Meaning

We usually act as if the meaning of a word were inherent to its sounds and shapes. But I bet you’ve had the experience where you looked at a word and suddenly it had no meaning. Not only did it lose semantic meaning but you couldn’t even sound it out. It became merely random marks on a page. Experiment with this; it can teach useful lessons. The easiest way to do this, actually, is to start with the sound instead of the written symbol. Say a word over and over until sound and meaning decouple. You become mute.


All language depends on complex layers of associations. A word means something only as long as you can give it meaning. But it’s not only yours to give. Students sometimes argue in class that a word can mean anything you want it to. Try it out. It doesn’t work very well, not if you want to talk with someone else. If a word meant anything you wanted it to, then how could anyone understand you? Your meaning would be different than anyone else’s. You would isolate yourself; your words would be merely mutterings in the wind. Ask yourself and your students: Where do meanings come from? When you speak, it’s not only you speaking. It’s a whole culture. It’s a time and place in history speaking.


But this connection takes energy. You can lose it. When you’re tired or angry, how hard is it to read or write? Word meanings disappear on you. Or imagine trying to write a poem or essay when you’re worried about something else. How much meaning you derive when you read a book varies greatly with your focus, quality of attention and emotional state. This is true not only with reading a language but even more with reading math symbols or scientific formulas.


This has great import to all of us, but especially to teachers. It provides a great subject for students to investigate and study. It reminds us that education often begins with uncovering what was hidden, assumed, right in front of us, and then constructing new understandings. And it reminds us that understanding and learning takes energy. So any work assigned in school must have a well motivated and clear learning goal. Even tests must be thought of in terms of what the act of taking the test teaches students.


But if meaning requires energy, what sort of effort should students be encouraged or taught to expend? To many people, work itself is good, hard work is even better. Hard work supposedly teaches persistence, how to face adversity, develop “grit.” But unjustified work imposed on people is just unjustified, and being told to do it in a school mainly teaches how useless schools can be. Work imposed only from the top is completed mostly out of fear, or out of a desire to please an authority figure. The fear might be of a bad grade or of looking bad; the work itself is not compelling. Fear can motivate, but it also creates resistance, stress. Do we want to associate learning with fear or with pleasing authority-figures?


However, work which emerges from and elucidates a student’s own life concerns, crises, joys and questions is barely work at all. It is not imposed top down but emerges from one’s life or from one’s own assessment of what is important. The effort to complete it is almost effortless.


In psychology class, when we teach about stress, we talk about the “3Cs” of commitment, control and challenge. These 3Cs develop hardiness, the ability to take on demanding work, intellectual or otherwise. Applying this to a school situation, the more a student feels committed to or interested in a topic or assignment, is given a choice or some control, and feels the task is a useful challenge or adventure, the less resistance or harmful stress they will experience, and the more they will learn. The 3Cs are a good guide to fostering effortless effort and clear learning. It also makes school more enjoyable and engaging.