Thursday, January 20, 2011

What do you mean when you say "Value Added?"

What does it mean to add value? This is a question I always ask in conversations with teachers when the phrase "value added" gets used. Usually the response is one of a blank stare as if to say, "You have to be kidding me." But, when I ask this question I am both dead serious and asking it rhetorically, both ways of interpreting the question are correct.

The problem with the phrase is that word value has many and different meanings depending on it's context. When we go shopping the term is meant to indicate that you get a lot for your money as in "This buy is a great value". When you hear interest groups talking about values they are usually talking about priorities as in "family values." When you hear it used in the context of, "What is this object's value?" it is used as a term indicating a conversion from concrete to the abstract, from object to dollar, etc. So, when we hear terms like "value added" to describe assessments or program decisions in schools there is no real indication what is meant and if depending on which of the two major uses of the term you take you will often end up with conflicting results.

Value as Priority

Now, lets say that the person using the phrase "value added" is talking about value as a term used to describe what a person or group cares about. Applied to the school this concept shapes the school's priorities and helps to guide where they devote resources, what they protect, and what they are willing to let go. In this sense, if something is not valued it doesn't matter. Therefore, "value added" would denote adding something the group cares about; something new with an immediate elevated status. This term applied this way says nothing about the cost or measure but only priority. In this case, something "value added" might indeed not produce measurable yields that correspond with the expenditure but the expense is spent because it is the right thing to do. Examples of such "value added" programs might be special education programs for the severely disabled, offering education services to a student who is terminally ill (after all, if they can't live to see adulthood what would school be preparing them for?), offering elective courses for the purpose of developing a capacity for appreciation in students, offering transportation, extra curricular activities, or even offering free public education for all. All of which are hard to measure quantifiably as a measure of return on investment but are things we do because we value them, they are "value added."

Concrete-Abstract Context

However, usually we hear the term "value added" to refer to return on investment. In schools this means one of two things: money or test scores. In this sense we value that which we can convert to an abstract, or that which we can measure. If a program, policy, or practice shows it can raise math or reading scores and the cost of such a thing is fairly low then it surely is "value added." If something costs a ton of money but we can't see any return on that investment it is not "value added." By this definition only things that produce yields are valued and therefore all else must be eliminated or cut. This is really what the whole standards movement, high-stakes testing, race to the top, NCLB, etc. is all about. Little is said of these kinds of "reforms" about spending time or money on something because it is the right thing to do but a lot of energy and resources are spent on issues of efficiency even at the expense of our values.

So, what does it mean to add value? When you use that phrase, "value added," which meaning of the term are you using?

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