Flypaper

The biography of teacher evaluation’s time in federal policy might be titled Portentous, Polarizing, and Passing. It had gigantic ripple effects in the states—man, did it cause fights—and, with its all-but-certain termination via ESEA reauthorization, it stayed with us ever so briefly.

Some advocates are demoralized, worried that progress will at best stall and at worst be rolled back. Though I’m a little down that we’re unlikely to see many more states reform educator evaluation systems in the years ahead, I think the feds’ exit makes sense.

This has nothing to do with my general antipathy for this administration or my belief that its Department of Education deserves to have its meddling hands rapped. And while I think Tenth Amendment challenges are justified, I have a different primary motivation.

In short, I think the work of teaching is so extraordinarily complex and teachers are so tightly woven into the fabric of school communities that any attempt by faraway federal officials to tinker with evaluation systems is a fool’s errand. I think we may eventually come to view the Race-to-the-Top and ESEA-flexibility requirements related to assessing teachers as the apotheosis of federal K–12 technocracy.

If you’ve never dug into the details of evaluation-reform implementation, you're probably thinking I’m exaggerating. Just bear with me for the next five hundred words. I think you’ll quickly appreciate just how daunting this work is and, as a consequence, how poorly federal diktats fit the bill.

I had a hand in New Jersey’s early-stage implementation, so I...

Student learning gains ought to be a component of teacher evaluations. Measures such as value added are a useful and important complement to classroom observations. But not all models are created equal, as illustrated by a new lawsuit in Tennessee that reveals a rather preposterous policy.

Last week, the Volunteer State’s largest teacher union sued the state in federal court over a law that ties student test scores to evaluations of educators who teach such non-core subjects as art, French, and gym. Teachers in Tennessee receive annual scores between one and five, with five being best. Those scores determine all manner of high-stakes administrative decisions affecting teachers, including bonuses, termination, and tenure. Approximately half of the metric is based on classroom observations, the rest on student test scores. For a teacher in a core subject such as math, and in a grade in which students are tested, this model makes sense. The bulk of the test-based portion of her rating is based on how well her students do on the math portions of the state’s standardized tests. That’s rational. A smaller portion, 15 percent, is based on “school-wide” performance—how well all the schools’ students do in all subjects tested. That also makes at least some sense as a strategy for encouraging teacher collaboration.

Yet for non-core instructors—the focus of the lawsuit—the law becomes rather absurd. Aside from a few questionable alternative assessments that aren’t widely used in Tennessee, no standardized assessment data exist for the subjects and pupils...

THERE HE GOES AGAIN
Louisiana Governor and potential presidential candidate Bobby Jindal released a forty-two-page education-reform proposal urging lawmakers to repeal Common Core on grounds of federal intrusion. Fordham’s Michael Brickman doesn’t think Jindal’s Common Core claims pass the sniff test, but notes that other policies outlined in the proposal, such as ramped-up school choice and charter school efforts, are worth discussing.

WE'LL VOUCH FOR THAT
As the 2016 election crunch approaches, Republicans may be able to put the national spotlight on school vouchers. Though past attempts to expand the voucher program have met with opposition, GOP leaders hope to broaden the school-choice conversation by making it a central issue in the party’s platform. And as our own Chester E. Finn Jr. reports, some high-profile Democrats are finally willing to play ball.

ACROSS THE DIVIDE
NPR offers a poignant look at the vast, if predictable, disparities in college-advising services between Michigan’s tony Cranbrook Schools and an under-funded public school in northeast Detroit. One activist admits resignedly that “your ZIP code can really determine what your future will look like.”

EDUCATION SPOTLIGHT: INDIANA
Political junkies and ed-reform observers are turning their attention to Indiana, where embattled State Superintendent Glenda Ritz is facing legislative action that may ensure that she loses her position as schools’ chief. The dramatic vote in the state House of Representatives is the culmination of a long power struggle between Ritz and Governor Mike Pence—one that...

Recent days have brought several thoughtful commentaries on results-based accountability in K-12 education, why it’s important, what it’s accomplished and why it needs to continue.

Such attention is exceptionally timely, as the negotiations presently underway between Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray in pursuit of a bipartisan formula for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind will inevitably devote much attention to the issues surrounding school (and teacher) accountability.

Like Mike Petrilli, I’m convinced that this can no longer be managed from Washington. Like Mike, I’m also convinced that accountability for results in K–12 education must continue. Losing it would carry us back to the pre-Coleman era when schools were judged not by their results but by their inputs, promises, and services, and teachers were evaluated by brief classroom visits from supervisors who arrived with no data, no rubrics—and no ability to do anything about problematic instructors. (Alas, that last shortage remains the norm, as does the practice of finding just about every teacher satisfactory, if not outstanding.)

The only thing that really matters about a school (or teacher)—beyond such basics as children’s safety—is whether kids are learning there. If they’re not, something must be done to change the situation.

But that’s where the soup thickens. What, exactly, to do? The drafters of NCLB thought they knew, and accordingly imposed a cascade of sanctions, plans, and interventions intended to “turn around” failing schools (and districts), as well as some choice-based actions intended to give kids alternatives to such schools. They...

TFA TROUBLE
Teach For America’s slipping numbers continue as they experience their second year of diminishing applicant numbers. The group says the appeal of an improving job market is to blame, while some aspiring teachers have deep concern with TFA’s two-year long model. Perhaps played down in the article is a shift to diversify cohorts of teachers, which could also be a factor in diminishing numbers.

LOOKING FOR MIDDLE GROUND
Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are reportedly putting their heads together to create a bipartisan proposal for ESEA renewal. Yet there is much skepticism as to whether a fully collaborative bill will be produced; last week, Lamar Alexander said that an NCLB update didn’t necessarily have to start with a bipartisan product. When the Senate Education Committee passed a bill in 2013, not one Republican voted for it.

HEASTIE FROM THE BLOCK
Bronx legislator Carl Heastie has been elected to replace the recently resigned Sheldon Silver as speaker of the New York State Assembly, granting him the power to decide which bills are considered and which aspects of the state budget are negotiated. His (relatively quiet) views on education will be important for the more than one million students that are part of the New York City school system and the $8 billion annually set aside in the budget. What do we know about Heastie so far? His policy plans align somewhat with union priorities, he’s pro-charter, and he will bring overdue...

THE SWEET SMELL OF CREEPING DISILLUSIONMENT
The older students get, the more pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) they become regarding their future job prospects, according to this Gallup Student Poll. While 68 percent of fifth graders strongly agreed with the statement, “I know I will find a good job after I graduate,” only 48 percent of twelfth graders expressed the same sentiment. Whether this is a reflection of the rough young adult job market or a simple loss of youthful optimism, schools are increasing focus on their students’ college and career readiness.

STATE YOUR BUSINESS
Senator Lamar Alexander has indicated his leaning towards keeping federal testing requirements in the new ESEA bill, but giving states the freedom to choose how they use it to hold their schools accountable. Michael Petrilli says it well: “States should continue to experiment with various interventions in low-performing schools. But let’s admit that we don’t know precisely what that should look like, and thus we definitely shouldn’t prescribe a particular approach from Washington.”

CAP'S OFF
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled his proposal for the 2015-17 education budget, with plans to extend voucher participation beyond the thousand-student cap and increase accountability through revised school report cards. The charter school sector can also expect to see an additional $4 million in funding, to be put towards the creation of a state board charged with the approval of new school authorizers.

TREASURE MAP
Because the people demanded it: Education Week has assembled...

It’s fascinating—and telling—how rapidly the zillion issues tucked away in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have been distilled down to arguments about testing.

There’s been almost no discussion, at least in places where I look, about Titles II through X of the 2002 (NCLB) version, and most of Title I’s myriad provisions seem also to have been set aside while people argue over the future of annual testing.

The new House bill would retain that requirement, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, though declaring himself open-minded on the subject, seems to be moving closer toward keeping it.

Testing is of course controversial in its own right. Many people think there’s too much of it and that it’s getting in the way of teaching and learning. I’ve come to view annual testing of kids in reading and math, and the disaggregating and public reporting of their performance at the school (and district) level, as the single best feature of NCLB and the one that most needs preserving. Indeed, I wish the testing requirement extended below third grade and above eighth, and that it was as demanding for science and history as for reading and math. That, I believe, would do a world of good for K–12 education.

But I also know that’s lunacy. Nobody is about to expand the testing requirement. The real-world argument is whether to preserve what’s already there. But the reason it’s controversial is not because of parental upset with...

Over the last couple of months, the ESEA reauthorization discussion has focused on testing. But that’s just one part of the accountability conversation.

As I see it, there are four major components of the federal accountability framework: testing, school and district designations, performance targets, and interventions (more on these below). Whether ESEA is reauthorized this year depends on how these sub-issues get resolved.

Mike, trying to forecast the shape of a final bill, recently created a very helpful table explaining the NCLB policies that he assessed to be totally off the table, certain to survive, or up for debate. I think his table did a solid job of explaining the lay of the land.

But it seems to me that more is needed to help folks with a higher level of involvement, such as those actually crafting the new legislative language, advising members of Congress, hoping to persuade decision-makers from the outside, or trying to understand the inevitable bargains to be made.

I think the shortcoming of Mike’s table is that its entries (like “cascade of sanctions” and “school ratings”) aren’t binary; that is, they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Policymaking in general, especially complex congressional negotiations, requires (and has a way of finding) compromises.

Each of the four accountability components listed above encompasses a range of options. On one end of the spectrum is no federal accountability; on the other end is forceful accountability. Between lie an array of possibilities.

I’ve produced a graphic...

Imagine you are a first-year social studies teacher in a low-performing urban high school. You are hired on Thursday and expected to teach three different courses starting Monday. For the first two weeks, you barely eat or sleep, and you lose fifteen pounds you didn’t know were yours to lose. For the first two months, your every waking minute is consumed by lesson prep and the intense anxiety associated with trying to manage students whose conception of “school” is foreign to you. But you survive the first semester (as many have done) because you have to and because these kids depend on you. You think you are through the worst of it. You begin to believe that you can do this. Then, the second semester begins…

Your sixth-period class is a nightmare, full of students with behavior problems that would challenge any teacher. But as hard as sixth period is, your third-period class is the most frustrating and depressing, because (for reasons only they are privy to) the Powers That Be have seen fit to place every type of student imaginable into the same classroom: seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, kids with behavior issues, kids with attention issues, kids with senioritis, kids who have taken the class before and passed it but are taking it again because the registrar’s office is incompetent. And, of course, a few kind, sweet, innocent kids. Who. Cannot. Read.

This is impossible.

Or so you tell the Powers That Be. Your seniors can do...

FILL ‘ER UP
The Wall Street Journal features an op-ed by Princess Lyles and Dan Clark, the executive director and lead organizer of the New York school-choice group Democracy Builders, laying out the case for “backfilling.” The term refers to the practice of filling new vacant charter seats as they become available, rather than at set enrollment periods. Though the authors convincingly depict the challenges faced by thousands of parents fighting over a limited number of spaces, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli retorts that backfilling can hinder the development of a coherent school culture and disrupt the learning of students who stay continuously enrolled in charters.

DEBATE TEAM
In light of the ongoing Senate effort to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Room for Debate blog at the New York Times has gathered some prominent voices to give differing interpretations of what it might mean to “fix” the law. Of course, Fordham’s Michael Petrilli has already detailed  what form reauthorization is likely to take.

OHIO UPDATE
Ohio Governor John Kasich has revealed a new education budget proposing a $700 million uptick in statewide funding. Early childhood care and private school vouchers will receive a sizable chunk of the allowance, along with reform efforts for Ohio’s charter sector. Fordham’s Chad Aldis calls the governor’s proposal, which would give charters more facility funding but hold sponsors to a higher level of accountability, an “innovative, bipartisan movement.”

TFA TBD
After thirteen years of rapid expansion, the organizational fabric of Teach for America may be ...

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