Adding Educational Value One Floor at a Time

Published January 1, 2003

The value-added concept of educating a child is like constructing a 13-story building one floor at a time, starting with the kindergarten entry level on the ground floor.

Under the direction and guidance of teachers, each child finds, grasps, and puts into place the elements of the educational framework necessary to support the next level of learning. When the framework for each level is firmly bolted in place and passes inspection, the child is permitted to climb atop the assembly and begin construction of the next floor of learning. After 13 such operations, a high school graduation ceremony marks the topping out of the child’s individual educational building.

If a soundly built floor is added at each level–one year of learning for each year of schooling–then each child’s educational structure would have 13 stories. But the 69 percent U.S. high school graduation rate in 2000 means almost one in three students abandons work on his or her educational development well before reaching 13 stories. And the prevalence of permissive inspection processes–otherwise known as “social promotion”–means many Americans with high school diplomas find themselves with educational structures that fall far short of 13 sound stories because of missing or incomplete floors.

The notion that all students are capable of creating their own 13-story educational structures has been a staple of federal education policy since passage of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the “Great Society” administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The focus of federal policy has been on helping low-income children develop the foundation required to support a 13-story building and to provide them with assistance in getting the initial floors under way. Those efforts were expected to raise educational achievement overall and especially that of low-income, predominantly minority children.

But when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reviewed the long-term educational performance of America’s youth some 35 years after passage of ESEA, two conclusions were most striking:

  • how little overall student performance has changed over three decades; and
  • how achievement gaps between different groups of students have persisted despite the attention and resources specifically devoted to closing those gaps.

Although scores for white students in three subject areas for three different age groups are higher than those for black and Hispanic students throughout the three decades of testing, this learning gap narrowed in almost all areas during the 1980s. But since then, the gap has again widened. The NAEP reading data, for example, show that by 1990, the average 17-year-old black student had improved to the point where his or her reading skills were about the same as a 13-year-old white student. In other words, the reading structure for 17-year-olds was 12 stories high for whites and only eight stories high for blacks. The 1990s saw no further improvement.

While excuses are legion–with inadequate funding, large class sizes, low student quality, and uninvolved parents taking the brunt of the blame–University of North Carolina Research Fellow William L. Sanders instead points to teachers as the key to educational improvement. Teacher effectiveness, he says, has by far the largest influence on student achievement.

Sander’s Value-Added Assessment system is designed to report on the effectiveness of individual teachers and to suggest where the efforts of less-effective teachers should be focused in order to raise the achievement levels of all their students.