The Man Behind the Numbers

Dr. Bill Sanders received the Kip Reel Award at the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents banquet earlier this fall.

By Ashley Ball, Classroom Chronicles

From his country home tucked away in middle Tennessee farmland, the suspender-clad former University of Tennessee professor looked every bit the part of a statistician. Dr. Bill Sanders sat down at his kitchen table to retell the story of how Tennessee’s Value-Added Assessment System went from a hypothetical scenario he developed while giving a college lecture to a renowned teacher effectiveness measure used in 24 states across the country.

Even before his methodology revolutionized student data, Sanders said he always held a firm belief that who was teaching a class impacted student achievement. He merged this philosophy with his love of mathematical methodology in the spring of 1982. He was on his way from his office, housed on the University of Tennessee Knoxville agriculture campus, to teach a statistics class. While he was waiting for the university shuttle, he ducked into the student center. Scanning the tables, he grabbed a left behind newspaper and after thumbing through the headlines, he landed on a story about teacher evaluation. The article cited several statistical reasons why you could never use student achievement data to measure teachers.  As a true statistician, he thought to himself, “There may be good statistical reasons why you can’t do this, but these aren’t it.” He scoffed at the flawed math and continued on his way to his statistics class.

During class that day, Sanders was struggling to articulate a point to his diverse population of majors. Searching for something universal, Sanders began to show students how teachers could be evaluated based on student achievement, working out hypothetical methods as he went. A colleague in the back of Sanders’ class listened intently and persuaded Sanders to put his ideas on paper. The two wrote a letter to the governor’s office explaining how to measure teaching on the rate of student progress. His letter was passed to the Tennessee Department of Education, and the department commissioned Sanders’ first wave of research in 1982.

With the help of Knox County records, Sanders combed through student and teacher data by hand. His small team worked nearly around the clock for months to complete research that he hoped would cement this theory. Sanders said before he started the project he didn’t know what he would find, but he believed teacher effectiveness impacted student achievement. And the numbers followed his theory; Sanders said the measurable difference from classroom to classroom quickly became apparent.

He found that when he followed every student as an individual, he could measure the impact that classroom or teacher had on the trajectory of that student as an individual.

He presented his findings from the Knox County data to Knox County schools’ then chief academic officer. She told him, “Bill, you are going to let the genie out of the bottle, and nobody will ever put it back in.”

Sanders finished the study and called his contact at the department of education. Sanders remembers the moment vividly: “I said, ‘I’m through’ and they said, ‘With what?’” Sanders chuckles at the memory now, but at the time he thought the whole world was waiting on his research. While it ultimately took decades to bring his research to fruition, Sanders’ belief in teacher impact never wavered. Tennessee teachers began using TVAAS data in 1997, and it is still one of the tools provided to every school and district in the state of Tennessee. It is also used statewide in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and in major metropolitan school districts across the country, last year reaching more than 2,000 school districts and nearly seven million students.

Sanders said he never imagined his methodology would span the country. “Not in my wildest dreams,” he said. But he is even more proud of the outcomes: “Every one of our major claims has been corroborated by other professors at prestigious universities.”

And teacher usage is on the rise. The website where Tennessee educators log-in to look at TVAAS data received more than 275,000 hits in 2012. Educators have already reached that number this year, setting 2013 usage to significantly outpace last year.

Despite the myriad of TVAAS reports available and the many ways educators use the data, Sanders wants teachers to understand one fundamental thing: “You can’t hold people accountable for things they cannot control,” said Sanders. “Teachers have zero control over the entering achievement level of their students.” Coined from the business term, “value-added,” Sanders says at its heart TVAAS is designed to measure the value the current classroom teacher adds to a student’s education.

These days Sanders looks at the data through a new lens. With seven grandchildren and one on the way, he wants the best teachers for his family.

“No matter how much we want to improve schools, if they don’t improve, you don’t want to sacrifice your children or grandchildren to a poor environment and neither should anybody else,” he said.

He hopes that TVAAS will continue to curb what he calls one of the most ineffective resources in the world.

“A huge percentage of the students that show up for college has to take remedial courses,” said Sanders. “That is perfectly predictable from projections going back to fourth or fifth grade. It doesn’t have to be that way.”


Ashley Ball, Classroom Chronicles

Ashley Ball, Classroom Chronicles

Ashley Ball manages content for Classroom Chronicles. She is a journalist turned educator.