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Barriers to Improvement

If there is one finding common among all assessments of K-12 initiatives, it is that nothing works as dramatically as its advocates expect. This is true of big national programs, like Head Start and Porter-Obey (school redesign), as well as more localized efforts, like professional development programs, uses of technology, and new schools.

Advocates always complain that their ideas weren’t faithfully implemented, and they usually have a point. New ideas must be adapted to work in a system where most action is predetermined by regulations, contracts, and constraints on use of time and money. In most cases, new ideas have their edges ground off to fit with established uses of time, money, staff, and facilities.

I first saw this in the late 1980s while studying site-based management, under which schools could make any changes they wanted as long as they did not violate any regulation governing time, money, hiring, or teacher assignment. Schools tried ideas, but implementation was weak, compromised, and temporary.

Public education wants and needs new ideas, but it blocks their implementation and prevents their getting a real test. That’s another reason why some market elements—school-level freedom in spending, staffing structures, hiring and assignment, use of time, class sizes, etc.—are essential preconditions for innovation in public education. Innovation also requires accountability (weak ideas, once tested, must be abandoned) and family choice.

If these market elements really existed in public education, who knows what reasonable ideas, once subject to inadvertently biased testing, might emerge?

Paul Hill


States Flesh Out Teacher-Evaluation Frameworks

As teacher-evaluation policies continue to emerge, several states are adding flesh to the outlines made in state law or in their winning Race to the Top bids.

Tennessee’s Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee has released its blueprint for the state. You may recall that, according to a state law passed last year, 50 percent of the evaluation must be based on student academic achievement (35 percent on growth in test scores and 15 percent on alternate measures, such as graduation rates). The state eventually won a $500 million grant in the federal competition.

For teachers in nontested grades and subjects, the state will for now use schoolwide value-added growth rather than individual teacher value-added measures.

Contrast Tennessee’s approach with that of Rhode Island and select New York districts, which are developing alternative measures for non-value-added grades and subjects.

As much as teachers’ unions have concerns about value-added for individual teacher evaluations, they’re even less sanguine about using schoolwide growth measures. That’s partly because individual teachers’ ratings will be based on the achievement of students with whom the teacher may have no contact.

Stephen Sawchuk

Vol. 30, Issue 29, Page 14

Published in Print: April 27, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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