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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

ESEA Cabin Fever: Should the Feds Have Any Role in Evaluating Teachers?

By Rick Hess & Peter Cunningham — February 13, 2015 4 min read
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“Cabin Fever” is a virtual conversation between two friends who come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum but share a belief in the power of public education to improve lives and brighten our collective future. The focus of the conversation is the federal K-12 education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), which is in progress in Congress. Our initial post on February 4 reflected areas of agreement around annual testing and transparency. Additional posts focus on areas of disagreement and will run simultaneously through February 19 every other day on Rick’s blog at Education Week and on Education Post.

Should the federal government have any role in evaluating teachers?

Peter Cunningham Responds

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based nonprofit supporting efforts to improve public education. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012.

Teacher evaluation that includes some measure of student growth on tests simply would not be happening without federal pressure. If we remove the federal role, it will disappear. The losers will be not only children who desperately need more effective teachers, but also the teachers themselves. Absent real accountability, teachers will be denied the resources, recognition, and respect they need and deserve.

Just as annual assessments help parents and teachers understand where students are at and how to get them where they need to go, annual evaluations show administrators how each teacher performs and how they can improve their craft.

At the beginning of the Obama Administration there was widespread agreement among policymakers, educators and many teacher unions that most evaluation systems were broken. As part of the Race to the Top grant program, hundreds of local and state union affiliates agreed to evaluate teachers using multiple measures, including growth on tests. Forty-two states agreed to the same policy in exchange for flexibility from No Child Left Behind performance targets.

Today, several years into the effort, some places are doing evaluation well, while others are faltering over questions around validity, stakes, and over-testing. These are legitimate questions, but none of them argue against a federal role. Instead, they argue for more thoughtful implementation at the local level, with federal guidance and encouragement.

In partnership with teachers, states and districts should decide which factors to use to evaluate teachers, tie a reasonable percentage to growth in test scores, and find a fair way to evaluate teachers in non-tested subjects and grades. And, for Pete’s sake, stop over-testing.

Rick Hess Responds

School systems should do much better when it comes to teacher evaluation, but Congress should stay far, far away from that process. When it comes to teacher evaluation, where the question is not whether it’s done but how well it’s done, federal requirements are good at spurring commotion and compliance, but lousy at ensuring that complex tasks are done well.

It’s not like teacher evaluation is a new thing. Schools and systems have done it forever, and they’ve generally been awful at it. Guess what? For all the frustration and furor prompted by the Obama administration’s waivers, little has changed. In states like Florida, Tennessee, and Michigan, 99% of teachers were rated effective before they unveiled new evaluation systems in accord with federal demands—and 98% or 99% were deemed effective under their new systems.

Federal timelines and guidelines encourage a simple-minded focus on compliance. The result: a reliance on not-ready-for-prime-time value-added systems, slapdash tests for teachers in non-tested grades, and a tidal wave of often formulaic (and not-real-helpful) classroom observations. In other words, good ideas executed poorly. Unsurprisingly, educators don’t seem to find this all that fair or useful. This is all too reminiscent of what happened with NCLB’s “highly-qualified teacher” provision, which quickly turned into a laughable paper exercise.

Of course, improving teacher evaluation is good for students and educators. And yes, better teacher evaluation should incorporate meaningful measures of what students are learning, classroom practice, and professional contributions. The thing is that no one has a recipe for how to do this or how to do it well across an array of schools and systems. And the feds mandating that states and systems do it, in a certain way or on a certain federal timeline, is a recipe for bumbling and backlash.

So, our debate today is not about teacher evaluation, per se. Indeed, I’m fine with Congress using modest and carefully circumscribed competitive grants to support those states and systems that are trying to lead the way (think Teacher Incentive Fund). But Congress should make clear that the federal government should have no role in requiring or steering these efforts.

Other Posts in This Series

Wednesday, February 4 - Issue #1: Testing and transparency

Friday, February 6 - Issue #2: Federal mandates around student performance

Monday, February 9 - Issue #3: What the federal government should require when it comes to school improvement

Wednesday, February 11 - Issue #4: Title I portability

Tuesday, February 17 - Issue #6: Federal support for innovation

Thursday, February 19 - Wrapping Things Up: The proper federal role in K-12 education

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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.