Julie Hiltz is a media specialist at Lutz Elementary in Hillsborough County, Florida, and a National Board Certified Teacher with 12 years of experience. She is also a 2013-14 Center for Teaching Quality Teacherpreneur, who is spending half of her workweek this school year engaging colleagues across the state in teacher evaluation and Common Core reforms.

Recently, Florida was forced (after losing a lawsuit) to release teachers’  “value-added” data on teachers — scores that allegedly determine a teacher’s effectiveness based on student standardized test scores. But standardized tests are only given in math and English, so schools have concocted a way to give all teachers a VAM score — by judging teachers on students they don’t have. As a teacher in a non-core subject area, Hiltz does not receive a VAM score from the state—but the state requires her district to come up with one for her anyway.

In this post, she reflects on the rating she received from her district, Hillsborough County, which deemed her “highly effective” as a result of her district VAM score and evaluations by her principal and peers. You can follow Julie (@juliehiltz) and the center (@teachingquality).

By Julie Hiltz

What’s the measure of a teacher? According to the state of Florida, it’s partially a Value Added Measure (VAM) score.

Teachers in subjects and grade levels tested by the state (so, approximately 54% of Florida’s teachers) receive a state VAM score determined by a complicated algorithm that measures students’ growth in a variety of academic areas as compared to their peers.  The VAM takes into account how a teacher’s students perform in relation to how similar students of a different teacher perform. Here’s how the state’s Department of Education explains it, from a department paper:

Recently, The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville won the right to receive the state VAM scores of Florida teachers through a public records request. Both the Department of Education and the Florida Education Association went to court to prevent this, believing that individual scores were exempt from Florida’s public records law. However, the 1st District Court of Appeals disagreed.

Frankly, I’m kind of flattered that someone would put that much effort in to trying to learn about me. But The Florida Times-Union could have saved themselves time and money by just asking me directly. I would have gladly shared my state VAM score, except for one small problem: since I do not teach a tested subject, I don’t have one.

This means my district is responsible for coming up with my VAM score. In Hillsborough County, teachers are rated on a scale of 1 to 40. This is me:

Politics and personal feelings aside, here’s what you need to know about my VAM score:

1. VAM scores are not always reflective of a teacher’s actual duties or assigned students. As a media specialist, my VAM is determined by the reading scores of all the students in my school, whether or not I teach them. My support of the other academic areas is not reflected in this number. I’m not alone—several other categories of teachers are also scored using this approach.

2. Like most teachers, I have no idea what my score means. I know that my VAM is related to school-wide reading scores but I don’t understand how it’s calculated or exactly what data is used. This number does not give me feedback about what I did for my students to support their academic achievement last year or how to improve my instruction going forward.

3. Not all VAM scores count the same. I teach in Hillsborough County and we have an exemption from the state formula due to the implementation of an Empowering Effective Teachers (EET) grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Hillsborough uses a different formula for computing teacher VAM, and VAM only counts for 40% of a teacher’s final evaluation score (rather than 50%, as in the rest of the state).

4. VAM scores are unstable. Researchers have shown that a teacher identified as “effective” using this statistical model has a 25-50% chance of being labeled as ineffective the next year (and vice versa).

So, given all of these factors, why do I even care about my VAM score?

Because it counts. My  VAM score is a factor in determining if I am eligible for a merit pay bonus, whether I have a job in the next few years, and how many times I’ll be evaluated this year.

Sadly, using VAM as a primary means to judge teacher quality is quickly becoming the norm in many states.

Not to be flip, but if you’re going to tie my effectiveness to a single number, here are some better options:

5: The number of years I’ve been a National Board Certified Teacher. The certification process is optional and rigorous (only 40% of applicants are certified on the first try). My certification documents my understanding of pedagogy and my commitment to improving the teaching field. I’ve since mentored several of my colleagues in their efforts to improve their teaching and earn National Board Certification.

477: The number of professional development hours I’ve spent over the past four years in learning new knowledge and skills, especially early intervention reading strategies. That number doesn’t include the countless hours I’ve spent reading professional journals, articles, and blogs, or collaborating with other teachers long after our students have gone home.

1: The number of times I have been selected by my peers as my school’s teacher of the year.

630: The number of teachers and students I supported last year at my school through instruction on information literacy and literature appreciation, small group reading intervention, technology integration training, and providing access to materials and resources for instruction and recreational reading.

None of those numbers are 23.6583. But they mean a lot more.

I understand the desire to quantify our world. We want to be able to evaluate something, break the data apart, look for trends, and find ways to improve things. And I understand why taxpayers want to know whether teachers are effective in the jobs we are paid to do.

My VAM score does not offer that information. It’s mysterious, unreliable (if you believe researchers), and empty of meaning. Before any administrator, policymaker, or taxpayer calls for my resignation—or fires me—I ask only that you visit my classroom to see what a 23.6583 looks like in action. You’re welcome any time.