An attempt to FOIL request the source code of the Value-added model
Last November I wrote to the Department of Education to make a FOIL request for the source code for the teacher value-added model (VAM).
To explain why I’d want something like this, I think the VAM model sucks and I’d like to explore the actual source code directly. The white paper I got my hands on is cryptically written (take a look!) and doesn’t explain what the actual sensitivity to inputs are, for example. The best way to get at that is the source code.
Plus, since the New York Times and other news outlets published teacher’s VAM scores after a long battle and a FOIA request (see details about this here), I figured it’s only fair to also publicly release the actual black box which determines those scores.
Indeed without knowledge of what the model consists of, the VAM scoring regime is little more than a secret set of rules, with tremendous power over teachers and the teacher union, and also incorporates outrageous public shaming as described above.
I think teachers deserve better, and I want to illustrate the weaknesses of the model directly on an open models platform.
The FOIL request
Here’s the email I sent to firstname.lastname@example.org on 11/22/13:
Dear Records Access Officer for the NYC DOE,
I’m looking to get a copy of the source code for the most recent value-added teacher model through a FOIA request. There are various publicly available descriptions of such models, for example here, but I’d like the actual underlying code.
Please tell me if I’ve written to the correct person for this FOIA request, thank you very much.
Since my FOIL request
In response to my request, on 12/3/13, 1/6/14, and 2/4/14 I got letters saying stuff was taking a long time since my request was so complicated. Then yesterday I got the following response:
If you follow the link you’ll get another white paper, this time from 2012-2013, which is exactly what I said I didn’t want in my original request.
I wrote back, not that it’s likely to work, and after reminding them of the text of my original request I added the following:
What you sent me is the newer version of the publicly available description of the model, very much like my link above. I specifically asked for the underlying code. That would be in a programming language like python or C++ or java.
Can you to come back to me with the actual code? Or who should I ask?
Thanks very much,
It strikes me as strange that it took them more than 3 months to send me a link to a white paper instead of the source code as I requested. Plus I’m not sure what they mean by “SED” but I’m guessing it means these guys, but I’m not sure of exactly who to send a new FOIL request.
Am I getting the runaround? Any suggestions?