Odd Pairings on Teacher Evaluation in ESEA Fight

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The always contentious subject of teacher evaluation is creating some unusual divisions on Capitol Hill, as members of Congress debate approaches for the long-delayed renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Two proposals for renewing the law—a measure that passed the Senate education committee last fall and a pair of House bills slated for committee consideration in the coming weeks—represent dueling visions of the federal role in shaping teacher evaluation, an issue that continues to roil state legislatures as well.

The House bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, would require districts to devise new teacher-evaluation systems, mirroring the Obama administration's priorities.

But similar language was stripped out of the Senate's bipartisan ESEA bill, at the behest of some Republicans, giving them common cause with teachers' unions, which aren't traditionally GOP allies.

The split is evidence of Republican soul-searching when it comes to the right role for the federal government in K-12 education as policymakers grapple with how to update the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA.

"There is a tension within the Republican Party between pushing for education reform and focusing on limited government," said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, and a formal federal education official under President George W. Bush.

"Teacher evaluation is a perfect example of this tension," he said. "All Republicans would like to see states create rigorous teacher-evaluation systems, but there's disagreement on whether the federal government should ask them to."

Different Tacks

The House measure would require districts to craft evaluation systems that rely in part on student achievement. That means Rep. Kline has found some rare common ground with the Obama administration, which has required states to create evaluation systems based on student performance in exchange for flexibility on the "highly qualified teacher" provision of the No Child Left Behind law. Under that rule, teachers must have a bachelor's degree, be certified, and demonstrate that they know the subjects they teach.

But in the Senate, some Republicans, including Sens. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, mirror the position taken by the National Education Association.

The two lawmakers, both members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, refused to get on board with the committee's ESEA reauthorization proposal until its chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, agreed to jettison language requiring all districts to adopt new teacher-evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account.

Instead, the legislation would require districts to craft teacher-evaluation systems of the type favored by the Obama administration only if they wanted a piece of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides competitive grants for creating pay-for-performance systems. The highly qualified teacher provision would remain, although GOP lawmakers have said they would seek to strip it out later in the process.

The administration has expressed serious dissatisfaction with the Senate legislation, largely because it does not mandate teacher evaluation following the administration's principles.

Personal Appeal

In a speech Feb. 9 unveiling his legislation at the American Enterprise Institute, Rep. Kline said he didn't see the House language as a major federal intrusion, since states and districts would be able to put their own twist on the evaluation systems.

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"We've just taken a different approach," he said. "We don't want to prescribe what [evaluation] looks like." Still, Rep. Kline said there might be "room for discussion" with Senate GOP lawmakers as the reauthorization process moved forward.

Sen. Alexander has said that while he is a strong supporter of using student test scores to inform teacher evaluations—he calls it "the holy grail" of education redesign—he sees the policy as still in the "Model T phase" and said it needs to be refined by states and districts.

At his behest, the Senate bill "does not include an order from Washington that all 15,000 school districts have a teacher- and principal-evaluation system," Mr. Alexander, a former U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, said in a speech on the floor of the Senate last fall.

"It does not include a definition of what it should be," he said, "and it doesn't include the opportunity for the education secretary, whoever it may be, to then issue a number of regulations defining what a teacher- and principal-evaluation system would be in Denver or ... in Nashville."

The NEA is hoping to sell Rep. Kline on that line of thinking.

Requiring districts to adopt teacher-evaluation systems "seemingly goes against the overall core philosophy in the House bill," said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the union. "Everywhere else in the bill, we see more flexibility [for states and districts]."

With the evaluation provision, however, "we have, for the first time, the federal government intervening in teacher-personnel evaluations," she said.

Still, even if the evaluation language is stripped from the House bill, the NEA won't be likely to support it, Ms. Kusler said. Among other issues, the union is concerned about the bill's elimination of the federal role in turning around low-performing schools, she said.

Though House lawmakers are working toward an ESEA reauthorization, few advocates expect the legislation to become final this year. But the divide on the federal role in teacher evaluation could have implications for other programs, such as the School Improvement Grant program, which aims to help turn around the nation's lowest-performing schools, and the Race to the Top competition. Both of those programs currently have a teacher-evaluation component.

Teacher evaluation is also a key part of the Obama administration's proposed $5 billion program to encourage states to improve the teaching profession. The program also calls for a new focus on teacher preparation, and collaboration between unions and policymakers.

Vol. 31, Issue 22, Pages 16, 19

Published in Print: February 29, 2012, as In ESEA Fight, Odd Pairings on Teacher Evaluation
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