Monday, June 9, 2014

The VA and VAM

What is the connection between the VA (Veteran Administration) and VAM (Value Added Measurement). Actually, there is a very close one.

The VA hit the news a couple weeks ago when a whistle blower went to the media and said that 40 veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital died while waiting for appointments. If the whistle had stopped blowing there, the news cycle on the story might have been a few days. Is the VA underfunded and understaffed? Who isn’t these days? Did 40 veterans die because they weren’t seen in a timely manner? Did they die of the same cause for which they requested an appointment?

As callous as such questions seem, I bring them up merely to make the point that the big news from Phoenix wasn’t about delays and death, it was about duplicity and lying. The whistle blower exposed the fact that the Phoenix VA had been keeping two sets of books: one that reveals the actual overly long wait times for appointments and another set that makes the wait times appear much shorter.

Now, why would anyone do such a thing? The answer is simple. A few years back, General Shinseki, erstwhile head of the VA, instituted a “pay for performance” accountability system for the VA hospital. Keep your wait times short, and the head administrator will get a nice bonus, of the order of $10,000.

And here is where the VA and VAM converge. Value Added Measurement of teachers is an accountability system that rewards – but mainly punishes – teachers based on the pretest-posttest gains of their students on standardized tests. It’s a stupid idea, which has not kept Arnie Duncan and a couple big testing corporations from pushing it. Experts called together by the American Statistical Association examined it and found it not ready for implementation, to put it mildly.

Putting VAM pressure on teachers is exactly like telling VA hospital administrators they’ll be punished – by withholding of bonuses – unless they meet quantitative targets set up by bureaucrats. The VA administrators cheated; they kept two sets of books. And, I am sorry to say, teachers and their administrators will cheat if subjected to VAM systems. I am not moralizing on this issue. I cheated too when repeatedly asked by politicians to fill out forms accounting for my time working as a university professor. (In several decades at several different colleges, my colleagues and I reported the same number of weekly work hours: 51 hrs. It was a fatuous number and exactly what the politician deserved. It had all the veracity of a politician’s expense account.)

Professionals simply will not and should not tolerate being subjected to these pay for performance schemes that they regard as having no legitimacy. The schemes are technically flawed. They are imposed by powerful persons who do not understand the work of professionals and who would not tolerate such procedures being imposed upon themselves.

An investigation into the VA scandal revealed that about 75% of the VA hospitals were cooking their books to get bonuses. Shinseki’s replacement, one Sloan Gibson by name, immediately put the kibosh on the pay for performance system. Just as any intelligent manager should do with VAM.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.


  1. The differences in the VA and ED situations are also notable. The media, the Feds, and all of the interests benefiting from the VAM fraud have ignored the whistle blowers, even though the injury in ED is far more costly and wide spread. VAM and the frauds it rode in on will eventually be corrected, but in the mean time, more whistles are needed.

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