Teachers

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...

Last week, Mike Petrilli issued a “stump speech challenge” asking his fellow education wonks to come up with talking points that members of Congress might use to bolster the case for annual testing.

Be careful what you wish for, Mike. Challenge accepted. Here’s my bid:

When you and I think back on our school days, we remember football games and school dances, the high school musical, and—if we’re lucky—that unforgettable teacher who put just the right book in our hands at just the right time. One who inspired us or opened our eyes to our own potential—and what was waiting for us in the world right outside the classroom window.

What will our children remember when they think back on their school days? I fear too many will just remember taking tests.  

And that’s not right.

At the same time, I hear an awful lot of cynicism about the efforts we’ve been making in the last few years to make our schools better. Some people say that all this testing is just a big game to label our schools a failure, privatize education, demonize teachers, and line the pockets of testing companies and textbook publishers. 

And that’s not right either.

So it’s time to have an honest, no-nonsense conversation about our schools, teaching, and, yes, testing. But let me warn you in advance: If you’re involved in education—whether you’re a teacher, parent, policymaker, or union leader—you might not like some of what I’m going to say. But it’s...

Though hardly the only issue to be debated during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act, annual testing has taken center stage in discussions so far. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP committee, put forth a bill that leaves open the possibility of removing the federal requirement that states test students annually in reading and math from grades three through eight—a possibility that has thoroughly freaked out much of the education-reform community.

But as Alexander has explained, he is merely trying to respond to what he and every other member of Congress are hearing from their constituents: There’s too much damn testing in the schools.

But is that true? And if so, is it because of the federal requirements?

A new report from the Ohio Department of Education provides some timely answers, at least for one state. (A bellwether state, mind you.) State Superintendent Dick Ross charged his department with collecting information about the number of hours Buckeye State students spend preparing for and taking tests (not including tests developed by their own teachers). The findings are illuminating (most of this language is verbatim):

  • The average student spends approximately 19.8 hours taking tests each year. This is only 1-3 percent of the school year, depending on grade level. Kindergarten students spend the least amount of time on testing (11.3 hours on average), while grade-10 students spend the most (28.4 hours on average).
     
  • Students spend approximately 15 additional hours
  • ...

Over the course of 2014, a series of reports from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) spotlighted some serious issues with education schools in Ohio. The Buckeye State boasts performance reports that analyze teacher preparation programs, but these reports merely show how little is expected of candidates prior to their acceptance into a teacher preparation program. Furthermore, Ohio doesn’t have minimum standards or clear consequences for poor programs. NCTQ is right that our teacher preparation programs need to get better in two key ways: improving candidate selection and strengthening teacher training. Here’s how.

Candidate selection

Right now, Ohio sets a low bar for admission into ed schools. Countries with the highest scores on PISA[1]—like Singapore and Finland—restrict admissions into teacher preparation programs to only their best students. In fact, in Finland, becoming a teacher is such a competitive process that only about one in every ten applicants will be accepted to study to become a primary school teacher. This is similar to what Teach For America does: In 2014, more than 50,000 people applied to join TFA, and only 5,300 were admitted—an 11 percent acceptance rate.

The intense screening process is designed to select only the candidates who are most likely to succeed. In Finland, for example, teacher candidates are chosen based on exam results, their high school diploma, and their out-of-school activities. They then complete a written exam on assigned pedagogy books, participate in an observed clinical activity...

James R. Delisle took aim at differentiated instruction (DI) in his commentary in the latest issue of Education Week, noting the challenge of making this nice-sounding idea work with the reality of many of today’s classrooms.

As our own Mike Petrilli wrote in 2011: “[T]he enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom” is the greatest challenge facing America’s schools. The implication is that those teachers seeing success with differentiated instruction—however few they may be—simply have less variation in learning levels among their students and, therefore, have less differentiation to do. (Oh, and that they have the right training, full understanding, endless diligence, and loads of time.)

So what’s the answer? Delisle wants to bring back ability grouping to fully replace DI. It is hard to deny  that America’s classrooms have changed greatly over the last few decades, so perhaps it’s time to toss out “one or the other” thinking and go for something new—a hybrid of sorts.

How about curriculum-based mastery instead? A content sequence with multiple check points along the way (yes, that’s testing). Master it, move on. Don’t master it, remediate until you do. In such a case, you can get the advantages of both DI and ability grouping. Students at both the high and low ability levels start at the same point in a new content area. Groups of students with similar achievement move forward together; those needing similar remediation work do so together. All with the...

Debate begins today on H.R. 30, a bill to tweak Obamacare so that large employers need not provide insurance for their staff unless they work forty hours per week, versus thirty hours under current law. The rationale is clear: The thirty-hour rule appears to be encouraging employers to cut workers’ hours, which is driving down income at a time when many part-timers are already struggling to make ends meet.

It got me thinking: How many school districts would be required to provide health insurance to their teachers under the proposed standard? Of course, virtually everywhere, such benefits are already baked into state law and/or local contracts for teachers, so this is just a thought exercise. And yes, most teachers work longer than is contractually required—both on site and at home. But so do professionals in other fields. The current debate made me curious about the mandatory workweek of the nation’s teachers.

To find out, I tapped the National Council on Teacher Quality’s fantastic Teacher Contract Database, which pulls information from collective-bargaining agreements (or their equivalents in non-union states) from more than one hundred districts nationwide. (Most of the data are current as of the 2013–14 school year.)

What did I learn? Most of the districts in the database don’t require a forty-hour workweek, and several don’t even come close. Let’s be honest, some of these workweeks are shockingly short. Sacramento’s barely hits the current Obamacare threshold!

Take a look for yourself at the range from the shortest to longest...

The 2014 version of the State Teacher Policy Yearbook from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) focuses heavily on the “critical issue” of teacher preparation. And in the glare of that spotlight, NCTQ finds that, while the average state grade for teacher preparation policies has improved from a D in 2011 to a C in 2014, there is still far more work to be done to ensure that new teachers are prepared to help students meet the demands of college and career-ready standards. Three states—Florida, Indiana, and Rhode Island—are ahead of the pack and earned grades of B+. Two states (Alaska and Montana) earned dismal F grades. Ohio falls into the middle of the pack with a grade of C, but this “average” grade hides several troubling truths about Ohio’s teacher preparation practices. For example, in Ohio, only fourth- and fifth-grade elementary teachers are required to pass adequately rigorous content tests. In fact, the Buckeye State is one of only four states in the nation that doesn’t require all elementary teachers to pass a content test prior to licensure. Ohio’s middle school teacher preparation policy is better, since teachers must pass an appropriate content test in every core subject they are licensed to teach. The same is true at the high school level, but the tests have significant loopholes for science and social studies teacher candidates. These candidates, who often specialize in certain disciplines (think chemistry vs. biology; American history vs. world history), are permitted to take content tests...

It was the best of times…

…for the Republican Party. Election Day 2014 was a rout, with the GOP winning full control of Congress and its largest House majority since World War II. Republican governors were re-elected in Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, and Maine. Democrat Pat Quinn was booted out of office in President Obama’s home state of Illinois. Republican now control two-thirds of state legislatures too. The GOP groundswell “will be good for education reform, especially reforms of the school-choice variety,” predicted Fordham’s Mike Petrilli

It was the worst of times…

...for teachers’ unions. “It’s open season on teacher employment protection laws in U.S. state courts,” noted Fordham’s Brandon Wright on the heels of June’s Vergara v. California verdict holding California’s tenure laws unconstitutional. And the hits just kept on coming. In October, the commission that runs the financially troubled Philadelphia public school system unilaterally canceled the union’s contract and ruled teachers must contribute to their health insurance to free up money for classrooms. (A good decision to avoid the big squeeze.) Election Day made the annus horribilis complete. The $60 million the AFT and NEA spent on campaigns merely advertised their impotence. The unions took out their frustrations in the waning days of 2014 on a TIME magazine cover story on tenure. “It’s a lot easier to gin up phony outrage over magazine covers than reckon with the question of...

The one where Mike and Robert agree on everything

The importance of vocabulary, ESEA reauthorization efforts, school discipline, and how school environment affects teacher effectiveness.

Amber's Research Minute

Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay, “Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December 2014).

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