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When the Policy Hammer Falls

Why did Race to the Top scoring criteria mandate that teacher evaluations be based heavily on student test scores? Why did states play along, passing scores of laws requiring just such a shift? Why are so many current education reform efforts focused on measuring teacher quality?

The answer to all these question lies, in part, in policymakers’ frustrations over how little control they have over what happens in the classroom. Policymakers have been hard at work developing new tools to pry open classroom doors, but even high-stakes accountability can’t force a teacher to do something he or she doesn’t want to when no one is looking.

If policymakers can convince school leaders to police their priorities, part of their problem is solved. If not, they resort to end-runs around educational leaders, such as state-level requirements about turning test scores into teacher evaluations. However, the design and implementation of evaluation systems is still a local issue that must be worked out between districts and teachers’ unions.

The problem is that sometimes the tools available to policymakers are very poor matches to the work they’re trying to accomplish. Imagine that you’re a state legislator and you want to improve education. What are your options? You can’t fire teachers, change curriculum, or ensure that certain techniques are used. The policy tools at your disposal are blunt—like hammers. And we know what happens when all you have is a hammer.

The problem, clearly, is that we principals have been doing a terrible job of being managers in our education system. We’ve been rating terrible employees as satisfactory year after year, while complaining about union protectionism. But this problem can only be solved at its own level—by improving the practice of principals. It can’t be solved through workarounds such as formulaic teacher evaluations based on test scores.

Vol. 30, Issue 15, Page 15

Published in Print: January 12, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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