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VAM on Trial: Rationality and Expertise in Teacher Evaluation Lawsuits

Mon, August 14, 2:30 to 3:30pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 520A


Over the last five years, there have been nearly twenty lawsuits across the U.S. related to state teacher evaluation policies and tenure laws. These lawsuits have been prompted by a new kind of data on teacher effectiveness generated by a controversial statistical technology, Value Added Modeling (VAM). As economic and statistical experts became familiar with VAM in the 2000s, policymakers in various states incorporated the technology into teacher evaluation systems. VAM has been presented by education reformers as a rationalizing force based on legitimate expertise, but teachers and critics have argued that VAM is overly complex, biased, and unreliable as an evaluation method. In this paper, we first review how economic expertise has influenced the law historically and in particular how experts have promoted ‘accountability’ policies to achieve greater equity in education. We then map out the landscape of lawsuits that involve VAM and compare four cases in detail to make sense of how expertise factors into legal decision making. How is this expertise constructed and contested in various legal settings where the stakes of teacher evaluation and tenure policies may differ? We find that while many courts are willing to hear arguments from experts about the merits and drawbacks of VAM, claims that these teacher evaluation methods are inherently rational sometimes make no difference to judges. When VAM is on trial, the negotiation of expert and legal rationalities can have profound consequences on the autonomy of the teaching profession and students’ rights to a good education.