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Every Student Succeeds Act

Rethink Teacher-Evaluation Systems if They’re Not Working, John King Says

By Alyson Klein — January 21, 2016 4 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act presents states, districts, and educators with a chance for a “fresh start” and “much needed do-over” on the very testy issue of teacher evaluation through student outcomes, acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King said at a town hall meeting for teachers in Philadelphia Thursday.

“I’ll start by being frank, if maybe also obvious, and say this conversation hasn’t always gone well,” King said in prepared remarks. “A discussion that began with shared interests and shared values—the importance of learning and growth for all our children—ended up with a lot of teachers feeling attacked and blamed. Teachers were not always adequately engaged by policymakers in the development of new systems. And when they disagreed with evaluation systems, it appeared to pit them against those who they cherished most—their students. That was no one’s desire.”

Why is this noteworthy? No single policy has been as closely associated with the Obama administration as teacher evaluations linked at least in part to state standardized tests, which were a hallmark of No Child Left Behind Act waivers and the Race to the Top competition. (In fact, in the past the administration has been really strict about the role state scores should play in evaluations, even going so far as to pull Washington state’s waiver when the Evergreen State refused to play ball.)

And, except for the Common Core State Standards, no policy has generated as much controversy and political blowback—culminating in Congress prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from having almost anything to do with evaluations under ESSA, which replaced the NCLB law.

King encouraged states and districts to think more broadly about how to gauge teacher performance. It doesn’t have to be just based on state test scores, he said.

He said states should be prepared to rethink their evaluation systems if they’re not really helping teachers get better. And educators must be at the table for those discussions.

The department’s “testing action” plan said states shouldn’t be pulling tests out of thin air just for the purposes of evaluating teachers, he added. (Some states put those tests in place to be competitive for Race to the Top grants or to meet the requirements of the program, including some districts in New York, where King was the state chief.)

The department will be releasing guidance soon on how states and districts can use federal resources to roll back the number of assessments they require, King said.

Of course, because of the restrictions in ESSA, there’s little that the U.S. Department of Education can do on the teacher-evaluation front, so King’s comments aren’t nearly as big a deal as they would have been if the law hadn’t made it over the finish line.

It’s unclear where the department will go on teacher quality. Some folks, such as TNTP, an advocacy organization, think the department should provide some kind of guidance on teacher effectiveness, since ESSA still requires states to make sure low-income students get access to their fair share of good teachers.

What’s more, King said it’s really unfair to teachers that students—particularly low-income and minority students—have to attend school in dilapidated buildings, or “with less than fair funding.”

“Here in Philadelphia or Detroit or a lot of other places where kids of color go to school, that kind of basic decency is not a theoretical question,” he said.

King was clear on one key teacher-quality issue: the need to revamp teacher-preparation programs, which he said need to do a better job of pairing theoretical ideas with training on the nuts-and-bolts of actually working in a classroom.

In King’s own preparation program, “we spent far less time, almost none in fact, on key practical issues like strategies for classroom management, writing a good quiz, or making parent-teacher conferences as productive as possible. All of which turned out to be quite important when I got to the classroom,” he said.

And King repeated his call for states to be careful when it comes to crafting accountability systems under ESSA. Specifically, he talked about the requirement that states use new types of indicators—beyond just reading and math scores—to gauge school performance, and the requirement that states and districts come up with their own interventions for low-performing schools and groups of students.

Those provisions have “tremendous potential to advance equity, by creating a more well-rounded view of school success—and how to get there through smart, evidence-based interventions when schools are struggling,” King said. Schools, he said, could now measure performance based on access to advanced coursework and put in place new types of improvement strategies, such as offering wraparound services to students.

But state leaders will need to proceed with caution to ensure that these new accountability systems will actually help close achievement gaps.

“Otherwise, new indicators could serve to mask some of the equity and achievement gaps we are working so hard to close, and interventions could turn into mere compliance rather than meaningful transformation,” King said.

File photo of John B. King Jr.