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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Secretary Duncan’s Course Correction on Teacher Evaluation

By Guest Blogger — August 22, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Maddie Fennell, a literacy coach for the Omaha Public Schools and last week’s guest blogger, is returning today to respond to Thursday’s remarks by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan regarding teacher evaluation.

On Thursday, Secretary Duncan took what I believe is an important step in the right direction when he announced that states will be given additional flexibility and more time to get evaluation right. Since I wrote about this topic just last week, Rick generously gave me the opportunity to share my thoughts on the announcement.

First off, I believe in giving credit where it is due. It’s not easy to stand up in front of one person, let alone in front of an entire country, and admit that a “fair chunk” of the responsibility regarding the challenges facing teachers today is due to decisions that you have made. It’s rare to hear someone who lives and works in a political fishbowl genuinely admit that a course correction is needed. That is what Secretary Duncan did yesterday.

Secretary Duncan’s statements reflected conversations that I have heard from fellow teachers across the country. I applaud the teachers who were bold enough to step up and express their thoughts on evaluation and testing from a student-centered perspective; they helped the Secretary and others in the Department understand how their policies were actually impeding, rather than promoting, student success.

Some will argue that Secretary Duncan should have been listening to teachers all along. I don’t disagree, but as a teacher, I accept the end result of learning without judging the pace of it. The Department’s evolution of thought regarding teacher leadership can be seen through the relationships fostered by regular meetings with union leadership, teacher involvement in the International Summits, conversations with teacher advocacy groups (NNSTOY, the Hope Street Group, Teach Plus and many others), and the development of the RESPECT Blueprint and (most recently) the Teach to Lead initiative.

But here’s the big question: Will Duncan’s announcement really bring about change? A year ago, the Department invited states to apply for additional flexibility around the timing of teacher and principal accountability and only two states did. Ugh.

Let me reiterate what I said just last Friday: Holding our own “cease fire” will do nothing if we don’t get ALL stakeholders to calm their fiery rhetoric, come to the table, and begin discussing the RIGHT way to build a system that provides a common road map to student success.

Every stakeholder who is currently operating under a poorly-designed evaluation system must use this as an opportunity to look at things differently. Teachers have to step out of their classrooms and actively lead on this. Take the time to do some research and understand what this could mean for your state. There is power in numbers; meet with your union and other teacher advocacy groups. Develop ideas around how you would use the additional time from a waiver to retool and put a better system in place. Working in coalitions, get a meeting with your state chief. Lay the Secretary’s announcement on the table next to your outline, and ask when your state will be applying for the waiver so that TOGETHER you can get it right.

Like Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, I believe that this announcement is just a first step. Randi Weingarten is spot on when she says that this must be “linked to concrete action and not just words.” As the leaders of millions of teachers across the country, they need to be first ones to sit down with Secretary Duncan and get “into the weeds” of what a great evaluation system really looks like.

It’s easy to talk in the abstract, but concrete examples are long past due. No more talking about “multiple measures” without providing a list of what those really are. What is an acceptable measure of student growth? What does it look like to have an evaluation system that is fair to teachers and accountable to the public? How should teachers be involved in evaluating their peers? We want the flexibility to mold what will work in our own school districts, but we need the models to help us develop a vision and a roadmap.

Secretary Duncan said that “we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.” That means that ED needs to make applying for waivers easy, not a series of cumbersome hurdles that rebuff state interest. They need to shine a BRIGHT spotlight on those who work with teachers to develop fair and effective evaluation systems. They also need to call out those states that are doing dumb stuff like tying 50% of evaluation to test scores or teacher evaluations to the test scores of students they have never even taught!

You know, teachers are a very hopeful group; our lives are dedicated to shaping the future. But the comments made by my friend Katherine Bassett in this column last April are echoing in my thoughts today: “We do not hope this will happen--we intend that it shall.”

I intend to hold Secretary Duncan to his promise to “be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right.” As I’ve heard Charlotte Danielson remark about evaluation, “there is work to be done here, and it is best led by teachers.”

--Maddie Fennell

Disclaimer: Because Maddie works in many roles, she needs to say that her comments are not the official statements of anyone; they are her personal opinions that she may change with the right amount of convincing!

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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