Blog: The Educated Reporter

My Christmas gift to you: a value-added story idea.

If you go into a typical fourth-grade class—especially a high-poverty one—on test day in March, you might find a kid who arrived at the school in January, one who arrived in February, and one who arrived three days before. You’ll find several kids who receive most of their reading instruction from a pullout teacher, and others who do so in math. There will be students who spend large part of their day in a special ed room, and some in ESL. The class might have spent a large chunk of the fall with a student teacher.A couple of kids might have been swapped from the class across the hall because they had trouble getting along with their classmates.

So how much credit, or blame, for these kids’ scores on the test should be attributed to the classroom teacher? This, in a nutshell, is the “teacher of record” problem, and chances are HUGE that your state or district has not solved it, even if it is about to make (or already makes) high-stakes decisions about teachers based on those scores. When I went to a Vanderbilt conference on performance incentives this fall, TOR issues were the elephant in the room. In presentation after presentation, they were quietly acknowledged and just as easily dismissed. “We have not quite worked that out yet, but we’re confident in our data” was how one district official put it.

According to those in the know, it has become clear as states try to make good on their Race to the Top promises that they have no solutions to the TOR problem, if they have even considered it. If you are covering a system that is, or will be, basing any sort of meaningful decisions on value-added data, you should be writing about this. It’s a policy story that can be easily, and compellingly, illustrated with the fruits of one day’s reporting in a classroom, and given that these policies are still being shaped, you should not wait to pursue this.