Here's the Deal: We Can't Help Teachers Improve If We Don't Know What Needs Improving

Nov 29, 2016 12:00:00 AM


In an unexpected defense of the Obama administration's pursuit of a clearer teacher-by-teacher picture of who's doing a good job educating the nation's students and who isn't, the U.S. Department of Education recently called on states and school districts to continue building "rigorous, transparent, and fair [teacher] evaluation and support systems." Starting in 2009, the administration used funding under its Race to the Top competition and waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act to incentivize nearly four dozen states to strengthen teacher evaluation systems, on the grounds that a much sharper picture of educator performance was critical to leveraging improvement in the teaching profession. But evaluation reform came under withering attack from accountability-averse teachers unions and Washington conservatives, and the White House abandoned the reform in negotiations over the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, leaving the federal incentives to expire in August.

Staying the Course on Teacher Eval

Surprisingly, given this history, the Department of Education urges state and local leaders to stay the course on evaluation reform. In  recently released recommendations to state and local educators, the department advises them on how best to spend the money they receive under Title ll, Part A of the new federal law—some $2.5 billion annually to strengthen their human capital pipelines. The department's blueprint isn't perfect. It clings unnecessarily to student achievement results in measuring teacher performance at a time when such use continues to be toxic with teachers. In large measure this is due to former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's insistence that teachers be rated on test scores at the same time states rolled out new, tougher tests, a move that led even the administration's Democratic congressional allies to walk away from Duncan's aggressive federal stance on school reform. The administration's guidance also endorses so-called student learning objectives as an alternatives to test scores, despite the fact that researchers have largely discredited these objectives as measures of teacher performance. The Department of Education would have been smarter to soft-peddle the importance of student achievement in teacher evaluations as a way to win back disaffected teachers, or at least point to new, less fractious strategies that are emerging, such as using test scores only to evaluate untenured teachers or as a preliminary screen to identify the lowest performers. From his first major post-appointment speech in Philadelphia, Education Secretary John King has sought to smooth relations with the unions and the education establishment generally—while holding the line to a certain extent on reform. He's trying to do both in this guidance. That doesn't mean the unions are going to befriend him, and they haven't. The guidance document suggests that the "primary" purpose to teacher evaluation is to help teachers improve their practice. In fact, that's only half the equation; evaluations should also help schools and school systems make sounder personal decisions—in hiring, promotion and firing. But the department makes many sound recommendations, including the importance of establishing clear standards on which to base evaluations, including observing teachers multiple times in the course of a school year, using multiple observers, training observers (and teachers themselves) effectively, and combining these classroom observations with other measures, including student surveys, teachers' contributions to school culture, and, perhaps, students' academic success. Subject-matter and grade-level experts from different schools and even teacher peers can be effective adjuncts to building principals as classroom observers, the department counsels, wisely.

States Can Do Anything...or Nothing

Of course, under ESSA states and school districts don't have to do any of these things. The law allows local leaders to do virtually anything—or nothing—on teacher evaluation reform. But there is  a growing body of evidence that comprehensive, carefully implemented teacher evaluation systems can help school districts establish clear teaching standards, focus school leaders on classrooms rather than cafeterias, and provide teachers with the professional feedback they say they want but rarely get. The reality is that we can't help teachers improve if we don't know what needs improving—and before the introduction of teacher evaluation reform in recent years, most of the nation's school districts had only a superficial sense of who was doing a good job in classrooms, who wasn't, and why. It's unclear, of course, whether the Trump administration would back the education department's stay-the-course-on-reform stance. For the sake of students and teachers, it should.

Thomas Toch

Thomas Toch is director of FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He is a former senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and director of the foundation’s Washington office. He is a founder and former co-director of the think tank Education Sector, a former guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Toch helped launch Education Week in the 1980s, first as a writer and then as the publication's co-managing editor. He spent a decade as a writer and editor at U.S. News and World Report and has contributed to The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, The Wilson Quarterly, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Monthly. His work has twice been nominated for National Magazine Awards. He’s the author of two books on American education, "In the Name of Excellence" and "High Schools on a Human Scale."

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