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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: VAM scam unfair to teachers

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Published:   |   Updated: March 5, 2014 at 08:29 AM

What began as a series of giggles in the other room gradually turned to snorts and a loud “Oh sure” and “Give me a break!”and then more giggles. I went back to the family room, where I found the Frau reading Mother Trib. She was giggling at a story in our “A” section, and I went over to check it out. I didn’t recall seeing any funny stories going on around the world that could cause chuckles, although since retiring from the school system several months ago, I’ve noticed that she laughs a lot more these days.

“Oh, it’s this story about VAM,” she said as I peered over her shoulder. “It’s not really funny the way they pick on teachers. They printed the formula in the paper and nobody seems to be able to understand it. I know I never could.”

VAM, of course, comes out of the school system and stands for “value-added model.” The school system has almost as many acronyms as the military, and the meanings are just as vague.

The idea is that VAM gives teacher evaluation scores that suggest what students are getting from a particular teacher. It’s the way the county measures the teachers in its system.

Here’s where you might want to grab hold of something so your mind doesn’t go spinning off somewhere.

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A newspaper’s public records request last week that caused the release of VAM scores has caused concern among teachers and administrators, partially because it shows the system appears to have been concocted in a Harry Potter movie. VAM goes back to the 2011 Florida Legislature, which is to education in Florida what Congress is to the national budget — they know they’re supposed to do something, they just don’t what it is or how to do it. I’d like to explain the process a little better, but it takes up 25 pages of charts, formulas and babblespeak to explain it completely.

Basically, the formula includes a witches brew of FCAT results, basing teacher scores on how many students actually did what they were expected to do. Into the pot you throw in attendance, how many times a student switched schools, class size, any disabilities the student may have and some other things such as whether there was an eclipse of the sun during the measuring semester. Teachers born under a full moon and who are left-handed with a wart on their left ear are particularly suspect.

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But that’s only the beginning. That score makes up only 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The rest comes from principal and peer evaluations, plus the color of the teacher’s car. OK, maybe that’s not part of it, but I’m leaving out other factors because there isn’t enough space.

I don’t know how you get evaluated when it’s time to talk. I used to think that every six months or a year you would go see your boss and the two of you would discuss how you were doing and that was it, but I guess that was too simple.

Now everything is measured in forms and little boxes where you put in an “X” even if it doesn’t make any sense or even fit whatever it is you do.

It would be nice if they could determine how good teachers are doing just by observing them and spending some time in the classrooms, but that’s not how things are done anymore.

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