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Published in Print: September 16, 2015, as With Waivers, Ed. Dept. Loosens Teacher-Evaluation Reins

Teacher-Evaluation Reins Loosen Under NCLB Waivers

Earlier hard-line approach giving way to flexibility

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Perhaps no single K-12 policy is more closely associated with the Obama administration than teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, which the president and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have championed, first through Race to the Top, and then through No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

And perhaps no policy has been as difficult to implement, particularly as states make the transition to new tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

The administration initially took a hard line on evaluations, asking states to roll them out over a specific time period and to include state test scores as part of the mix.

But over the past year and a half, the U.S. Department of Education has offered states more and more flexibility when it comes to getting evaluations aligned to common-core tests in place and using them to make personnel decisions. In the latest twist, the department this summer has allowed at least two states—Arkansas and Massachusetts—until the 2017-18 school year to finish putting in place teacher evaluations aligned to new, statewide tests that gauge students' college-and-career readiness, according to the states' waiver-renewal letters.

That's well after the Obama administration leaves town. And it's an open question whether the next education secretary will expect those states to follow through on their promises.

Meanwhile, about a dozen states have been given until the 2016-17 school year—or Duncan's last year at the helm of the department—to get their evaluation systems using state tests aligned to the common core or other standards fully in place, according to state waiver-renewal letters sent over the summer.

Those states include: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Many of them already have evaluation systems in place, but need time to link them to tests aligned with the common core or use them for personnel decisions, like hiring and firing.

ESEA Complication

Complicating matters: Neither of the bills to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act making their way through Congress would continue to require states to develop teacher-evaluation systems that rely on student test scores. So it's unclear just how many states and districts will continue with the policy if that legislation passes–or even if reauthorization falters and a new administration is in place.

That makes things tough for Duncan and company, said Chad Aldeman, who served in the Education Department under President Barack Obama and worked on teacher quality issues.

"The current administration is in a tight spot," said Aldeman, who is now an associate partner at Bellwether Education, a consulting organization in Washington. "They're not willing to hold a [hard] line on teacher evaluation and not willing to give it up yet, so it creates this weird middle ground that sends a murky message to states."

Hard Bargain

The department initially drove a hard bargain on teacher evaluation. It made Illinois wait more than a year for its waiver, because the state's timeline didn't match federal parameters, and it pulled Washington state's waiver last year because that state's system didn't require state test scores to be part of a teacher's rating.

But later, the department backed teacher-evaluation requirements out of the initial process for extending states' waivers. Then, last August, the department told states they didn't have to tie teacher evaluations to test scores during the 2014-15 school year, the year new tests aligned to the common core came online in many states.

And Duncan left the door open for additional flexibility beyond even that, telling states in a blog post last year that he generally expected most would put evaluations tied to new tests in place by 2015-16, but that he would work with them if they needed additional leeway beyond that year.

Having different sets of expectations for different states at different times during the waiver process can cause confusion, said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president and managing director for state and district policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy organization in Washington.

"There doesn't appear to be a clear set of operating principles guiding these decisions," Jacobs said. "It does seem like they are treating states as individuals, but I'm not sure that has led to clearly consistent policy across states."

In some cases, states say they are already well along the road of using student data to inform evaluations—it's just that they've made changes to their state assessments and need to have the new tests in place for at least a couple years. That will allow them to establish a baseline for student performance so that teachers can be judged fairly on student growth, before the evaluations tied to the new tests can be used for hiring and firing.

Bay State's Approach

Massachusetts, which won a federal Race to the Top grant in part because it was moving forward on teacher quality, is giving districts extra time to fine-tune measures for student growth. The Bay State's system calls for evaluations to incorporate at least two measures of student progress. That can be a complicated process, and most districts sought extensions from the state for at least some grades and subjects.

What's more, the state gave districts extra time to pinpoint measures for another component of the evaluations—educator impact, said Jackie Reis, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in an email.

"Our goal has been to implement an evaluation system that strengthens teaching while also giving districts the time and flexibility to meet the requirements in a way that is meaningful to their educators," Reis said.

Rhode Island has had its teacher-evaluation system in place since 2012-13, according to Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the department. But the state only began using the Performance for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests this past school year. The Ocean State will need at least one more year of student data before it can link the tests to student growth on that test, Krieger explained in an email.

Related Blog

Similarly, Kansas has had its evaluation system—which varies somewhat district by district—in place since the 2013-14 school year, said Bill Bagshaw, the assistant director of teacher licensure and accreditation. But, like Rhode Island, the state needs to give its new assessment time to produce data, and it will take until the 2016-17 school year for Kansas to get the information it needs to measure student growth.

Bagshaw knows a new NCLB law that doesn't include the teacher-evaluation requirement may be in place by that time. But he's hoping school districts will stay the course on teacher performance reviews.

Kansas officials hope that districts would stick with the evaluation systems, even if a newly reauthorized ESEA doesn't require it, Bagshaw said. He also pointed to a state statute that calls for districts to consider academic improvement as a factor in evaluations—and a reauthorization of ESEA wouldn't change that.

"Districts have done so much work. I think we would all hope that people wouldn't undo anything they have done simply because they don't have to" from a federal perspective, he said.

Vol. 35, Issue 04, Pages 20,24

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