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Education Opinion

When School Reform Falls Flat

By Rick Hess — September 27, 2013 3 min read
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On Wednesday, I discussed the thesis of my new National Affairs article “The Missing Half of School Reform.” One of the inevitable, appropriate questions people respond with is for examples of where “reform” efforts have come up short. Today, let’s touch on two examples.

In recent years, concern that existing teacher-evaluation systems were toothless and failing to differentiate among teachers has led reformers to fight for more rigorous teacher evaluation systems. Lending urgency to the push was TNTP’s influential 2009 study “The Widget Effect,” which famously reported that more than 99% of teachers across the nation were routinely rated “satisfactory.” In Florida, reformers responded in part by passing the controversial Senate Bill 736. Of SB736, Governor Rick Scott enthused, when signing the bill, “Exceptional teachers will now be distinguished, celebrated and rewarded for their dedication and skill.”

The bill mandated that all teachers be evaluated based upon a set of formal observations and student gains on achievement tests (requiring a slew of new tests to gauge learning in every subject and grade). But after all of the effort and political capital expended to enact the program, tens of thousands of hours spent observing and documenting teachers, and tens of millions of dollars spent developing the requisite tests (some of which are still being hotly debated and so have yet to be implemented), the preliminary results announced in January showed that 97% of teachers were rated effective or better. In Tennessee, another state regarded as an exemplar of teacher-evaluation reform, 98% of teachers were rated at or above expectations. In Michigan, the figure was 98%. These results meant that all the effort and expense invested in these teacher-evaluation reforms have thus far achieved next to nothing.

The reason is straightforward enough. Legislators can change evaluation policies but cannot force principals to apply them rigorously. And it turns out that, even after policies were changed, principals still were not sure what poor teaching looked like, still did not want to upset their staffs, and still did not think giving a negative evaluation was worth the ensuing tension and hassle -- especially given contractual complications and doubts that superintendents would back up personnel actions against low-rated teachers.

A similar story can be told about “school turnaround” policies intended to aggressively intervene in persistently low-performing schools. The 2009 federal stimulus bill included a hefty $3.5 billion for school-improvement grants. Reformers celebrated the grants as a chance to turn around struggling schools that have remained unchanged by waves of previous such efforts. But the aggregate data that’s dribbled out is unpersuasive. And a 2012 analysis by researchers at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education noted that school systems in Washington state failed to move aggressively, even with millions in turnaround dollars. The researchers observed that school systems almost uniformly spent the funds on more staff, time, and professional development, and “approach[ed] the work on turnaround in ways... only marginally different from past school improvement efforts.”

Researchers blamed many factors, “including politics, fear of controversy, lack of knowledge, and the constraints of collective bargaining.” These led school and system leaders to favor “incremental additions to ongoing activities” rather than new, potentially transformative measures. The findings were reminiscent of those from an extensive evaluation of the federal Comprehensive School Reform program, which provided funding to nearly 7,000 schools between 1998 and 2006. WestEd reviewed that program in 2011, reporting that just one-third of the grantees had even followed through on their commitments, that participating schools were no more likely than other comparable schools to have implemented the promised reforms, and that the performance of participating schools was indistinguishable from that of comparison schools. Policymakers can require interventions, but they cannot mandate that such interventions be pursued wisely or well.

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.