Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, June 26, 2014

Meyer helps districts use data to improve student outcomes

Meyer helps districts use data to improve student outcomes

Rob Meyer is helping Wisconsin school districts do a better job.

As the director of the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the La Follette School research professor is helping school districts across Wisconsin and the United States determine which programs and elements of teaching help students do better academically.

The term "value added" is shorthand for the use of data on student demographics and test scores to measure teacher performance — the value teachers add to student learning — to, in turn, figure out what instructional strategies work well and how they might be improved. Value-added measures of teacher performance have become popular because they are based on student test scores but are adjusted in ways that more accurately reflect educator contributions.

"Value added is looking at growth in student test scores to try to measure how the school has done to have that improvement be as good as possible," Meyer says. "To learn what works, we need to compare teachers and schools while we account for different kinds of students — those with disabilities, those for whom English is not their first language, those who live in poverty. Value added takes those factors into account."

"Ultimately, our goal is to get teachers to use data to improve their teaching," he adds. "Our objective is to give educators, students, leaders the tools that they need to help make their system work better," he adds. "Our goal is to provide accurate measures. We know that through accuracy, we are being fair."

Meyer has been building models of value-added measures of teacher and school effectiveness since 1989, starting in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. In the years since, he and his team have expanded their work to Chicago, Madison, New York City, Atlanta, Tulsa, Hillsborough and Collier counties in Florida, and Los Angeles.

Housed in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in the university's School of Education, VARC is home to more than 50 educators, econometricians, policy analysts, programmers, psychometricians, data systems specialists, and qualitative and quantitative researchers.

"Our job started with producing value-added analytics, then we expanded into producing data that supports teachers and students as they think about how they are doing, whether teachers are being effective, what programs work, whether teachers' professional development is effective," Meyer says.

VARC has a close working relationship with Milwaukee Public Schools, delivering 11 annual value-added reports based on data from the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examinations. VARC also developed a value-added metric for the district based on data from another standardized test, the Measures of Academic Progress.

VARC staff are also helping with the Milwaukee Integrated Data Evaluation and Response System, a longitudinal cross-agency database with health, social, and educational needs and outcomes of children and youth in Milwaukee. "The IDEAS data system will create greater ability for researchers to conduct analyses to identify specific risk and protective factors, assess community needs, and determine program impacts and areas for improvement," Meyer says. "A secondary objective is fostering cross-agency dialogue and supporting development of creating a shared vision and plan for community-wide action."

Meyer also leads major initiatives in Minnesota and the Dakotas (and their partner school districts) to provide value-added information to all teachers and to the colleges and universities that prepared these teachers. He works with many districts and states to expand value-added systems to include courses not typically covered by standardized state assessments. In addition, he has conducted major statistical evaluations of programs and policies such as class-size reduction, literacy, and supplemental educational services.
In 2009, Meyer and VARC launched the Wisconsin Statewide Value-Added project in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Instruction. "We crafted the value-added model that we now use to analyze the academic growth of students across the state," Meyer says.

Forty-three school districts are working with DPI, VARC and Cooperative Educational Service Agency #2 to receive value-added estimates based on standardized test results for each district and school compared to the state average, Meyer says.

"As we build these data analytic systems, our job is to look at student test scores, attendance and other outcomes, and try to understand the role of the students, families and the contribution of educators," he says. "As we build the models and look at the data, it's serious business. We're not providing statistics that are merely intended to be descriptive, we are providing analytics that are supposed to accurately measure contributions by teachers, principals and other educators."

"We want to be accurate and through accuracy, we want to have fairness," Meyer adds. "To ensure we are accurate, we use diagnostics and measures to probe the data so we can distinguish between the contribution of the teacher and factors that are external to the teacher."