Professional Development

Obama Administration Sends Mixed Messages on Teachers and Testing

By Ross Brenneman — May 06, 2014 7 min read
President Obama and 2014 National Teacher of the Year finalists applaud Sean McComb, second from right, a high school English teacher from Maryland, as the 2014 National Teacher of the Year during an event at the White House.
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Baltimore teacher Sean McComb is beginning his first full week as the newly minted National Teacher of the Year, timed conveniently to coincide with Teacher Appreciation Week.

In a ceremony held in the White House East Room last week, President Barack Obama praised McComb and other Teachers of the Year representing every state, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories as the “best of the best.”

“Students know that what teachers give them stays with them for a lifetime,” the president said. He noted that great teachers take on the role of counselor, that they become the inspiration for their students to do big things, and that they do more than “going through the motions of teaching to the test.”

That “teaching to the test” line, and similar statements, have made their way into the president’s remarks before. In this year’s State of the Union address, for instance, Obama called for “better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test.”

But while the president may have a view of teaching that involves more than test results, his administration’s policies have arguably failed to focus attention beyond that aspect.

Tested Nerves

Many of the education programs championed by the Obama administration have tended to emphasize the central role of testing in education policy and in judging teacher performance.

The state of Washington, for instance, lost its waiver from the proficiency requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act last month due to a disagreement with the U.S. Department of Education over the role of testing in teacher evaluation. The state is one of a handful that does not require state tests be used as determinants of teacher quality.

Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon are also at “high risk” of losing their waivers due to similar concerns, and Michigan may be joining that group soon, too.

Some states already have new teacher-evaluation systems in place after applying for funding from the department’s Race to the Top competitive-grant programs. Those systems explicitly entail tying teacher evaluation to student test scores.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has also voiced strong support for the School Improvement Grant program, which attempts to help struggling schools increase achievement through one of several improvement models. Many schools choose the “transformation” model, which includes gauging teacher effectiveness through test scores. The “turnaround” model, meanwhile, requires replacing half of the school’s faculty.

Yet the research on SIG shows a mixed picture of the program’s effectiveness, with two-thirds of schools gaining ground in student achievement, and the other third losing it.

“What the administration clearly believes is that, if they don’t strongly encourage states to adopt [teacher evaluation] measures that include student learning, [then] they won’t,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California.

Polikoff doesn’t believe that the administration actually wants student achievement to make up “even a preponderance” of teacher evaluation, but added that if the administration does want states to do more than rely on test data, it needs to show more thoughtfulness.

“[With school accountability,] what we saw there was a lack of creativity on the part of the states, just sticking with old measures and old approaches that we know lead to numerous problems,” Polikoff said. “I suspect that we haven’t really seen too much creativity in teacher evaluation as well, and I think that’s in part because of what the administration emphasized and what they didn’t emphasize.”

Flexibility, If Not Guidance

While the Education Department has offered waiver states flexibility to postpone implementation of teacher evaluations tied to student growth, it has given states little guidance during the waiver process about what else those teacher evaluations should encompass.

The imminent arrival of exams tied to the Common Core State Standards has given states pause about how soon to use those in regard to teacher evaluation, too. But that’s another issue the Education Department has declined to clarify.

In a March meeting with the Council of Chief State School Officers, the group that helped spearhead the common core, Duncan declined to elaborate on what role the common-core-aligned exams, currently undergoing field testing, should play in teacher evaluation—not an endorsement, but not a statement of opposition, either.

If the tests being used for evaluation were expected to provide thorough reflections of student learning, Polikoff said, then “teaching to” them might not be a bad thing. The two state consortia developing common-core tests were expected to incorporate a considerable number of performance-based test items, which assessment experts say can better demonstrate understanding than multiple-choice questions do.

But certain complicating factors involving cost, time, and logistics have reportedly made the consortia scale back the number of such items. In other words, multiple-choice questions—those “bubbles” the president referred to—aren’t dead just yet.

The consortia received over $300 million in federal funding to develop the tests.

“Sadly, I think that this administration is always going to be remembered, when it comes to teaching, for the high-stakes teacher evaluations component of their policies,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “I think it’s going to be really hard for people to look past that. I’m not saying that’s fair, but when people think of this administration, that’s what they’re going to think of.”

Materials and Opportunities Needed

Critics worry about the indirect effects of the Education Department’s emphasis on teacher evaluation. At a Senate hearing last month, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) suggested to Duncan that the level of federal involvement risks endangering other reform initiatives, including the common core.

“You’re undermining, I’m afraid, the very high standards and teacher evaluation that I think both of us want to do,” Alexander said.

The common core is actually one area where the administration and many teachers do see eye to eye, even if the president, wary of political backlash, won’t lend vocal support to the standards.

“The thing people misunderstand is, common core is a blueprint,” said Milton Weist, the Wyoming Teacher of the Year, in a press conference after the White House ceremony. “When I go to build a house, I go to the building inspector, and he gives me a list of codes, and I have to build to those codes, but I can choose to build the Taj Mahal, or a shack. And I think most districts use those standards to build something pretty substantial that benefits their community.”

But support for the common core doesn’t mean teachers are content with implementation efforts so far.

“I believe that we’re making this shift to higher expectations intentionally and with purpose, but we have to meet the needs of teachers in order to get there,” McComb said in an interview. “Now we need support in order to do that. We need materials and we need opportunities for professional learning in order to meet those needs. And that’s where the devil’s going to be in the details for really meeting the needs of kids.”

A new survey of the Teachers of the Year, at both the national and state levels, points to professional development as a key priority for educators. Many new teachers may actually be entering the profession with little training in the common core, because many higher education institutions have inconsistent approaches to teaching it.

Katie Brown, the Washington Teacher of the Year, also coordinates professional development for her school, Shuksan Middle School, in Bellingham, Wash. She says her school offers over 50 hours of in-school professional development annually.

“Any policy that is being written, we have to also understand the complexity of implementing those different policies,” she said at the press conference. “Teaching is incredibly complex, and we not only are experts in our field, we are experts in collaboration if you give teachers the time to do so.”

Brown noted that it is also important for teachers be allowed to direct their own professional development.

Still, if teachers can’t always have the policy support they desire, personal support also remains vital, they say.

“I know how good it feels when a student comes back to you and gives you a little bit of that gratitude and feedback, and I’ve been sure to do that as well,” McComb said. “I really hope that I can use my opportunity to encourage more people to reach out and thank a teacher. ... That’s the fuel that keeps us going.”


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