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Data King Nate Silver Isn't Sold on Evaluating Teachers With Test Scores

In a Reddit AMA, Silver expresses his concern about the practice.


Over the past few years one of the most controversial topics in education reform has been measuring teacher effectiveness with standardized tests. Well, on Tuesday, the Jon Stewart-dubbed "Lord and God of the Algorithm," Nate Silver, participated in a Reddit AMA and the top question tackled the issue head-on.

Indeed, user GrEvTh asked Silver, "What are your thoughts on data-driven metrics for teacher evaluation? Do you think a system that accurately reflects teacher value could ever be created, or will it always be plagued by perverse incentives (teaching to the test, neglecting certain types of students, etc)?"


Silver's response indicates that he's not a fan of the practice:

"There are certainly cases where applying objective measures badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of those.

In my job out of college as a consultant, one of my projects involved visiting public school classrooms in Ohio and talking to teachers, and their view was very much that teaching-to-the-test was constraining them in some unhelpful ways."

He went on to note that it's a "topic that requires a book- or thesis-length treatment to really evaluate properly," and said he might write one on the subject someday.

Silver's hesitation about using test scores to evaluate teachers isn't exactly a surprise given that he's driven by data and facts, and plenty of other individuals and organizations have laid out the case against the practice pretty thoroughly. In October 2009 the National Research Council wrote a letter to the Obama administration warning them against including the policy in their Race to the Top reform agenda. The NRC noted that research does not support the practice and while they believed tests can be used to inform, "a single test should not be relied on as the sole indicator of program effectiveness."

John Ewing, the president of Math for America has also completely debunked the practice and last fall, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute wrote,

"...two years ago, EPI assembled a group of prominent testing experts and education policy experts to assess the research evidence on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. It concluded that holding teacher accountable for growth in the test scores (called value-added) of their students is more harmful than helpful to children's educations. Placing serious consequences for teachers on the results of their students’ tests creates rational incentives for teachers and schools to narrow the curriculum to tested subjects, and to tested areas within those subjects. Students lose instruction in history, the sciences, the arts, music, and physical education, and teachers focus less on development of children’s non-cognitive behaviors—cooperative activities, character, social skills—that are among the most important aims of a solid education."

However, despite the abundance of smart people speaking out against the practice, education policy makers continue their push for including test scores in teacher evaluations. Given the respect folks who are in decision-making positions of power now have for Silver due to his nearly perfect prediction of election results last November, Reddit user, ehmatthes, pointed out that Silver could play a valuable role by saying "what you just said, a little more formally, in a place that people could link to when these initiatives come up in individual places around the country."

Ehmatthes went on to tell Silver that he doesn't "need to find a way to evaluate teachers, if that is not your focus. But if you are willing to help call out inadequate approaches when they arise, you could help educators maintain a positive focus on helping students rather than defending themselves and the profession."

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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