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States Found to Hinder Teacher Effectiveness

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 29, 2009 5 min read
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A push in national circles for states to align their human-capital management systems strategically with goals for recruiting and retaining effective teachers hasn’t yet trickled down to the states, an analysis of state teacher policies reveals.

Released today by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, the analysis contends that many states have set compensation policies that may actually work at cross-purposes to building a strong teacher workforce. Additionally, by putting into place vague guidelines around teacher-evaluation and tenure-granting processes, states are complicit in allowing poor teachers to remain in classrooms, it says.

For instance, only Iowa and New Mexico require districts to consider some evidence of teacher effectiveness before they grant the job protection known as tenure, according to the analysis.

At the report’s release here in the nation’s capital, the president of the council dismissed the common belief that these teacher policies are set exclusively by districts.

“The age-old excuse of local control is a red herring. States are regulating plenty,” said Kate Walsh. “They are making the same mistake as the [Securities and Exchange Commission], routinely doing the equivalent of sending Martha Stewart to jail while the banks run amok.”

Better state guidelines would set a stronger floor from which districts could build, she argued.

Deborah A. Gist, the state superintendent of the District of Columbia, which received an F from the council, agreed that the review should prompt new questions about the relationship between states and districts in ensuring improved teacher effectiveness.

“What is the right synergy between states and locals?” she asked. “Where is the right place to draw the line?”

No Grade Inflation

The analysis is the council’s second annual “yearbook” of state policies. Last year’s review focused on a broader set of teacher-quality criteria.

It comes as a number of policy experts argue that districts need to better align compensation, professional development, and other aspects of the teacher-quality continuum to student-achievement goals. The topic was the subject of a national conference last fall. (“Human Capital Key Worry for Reformers,” December 3, 2008.)

And earlier this week, the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff, John Podesta, released a position paper urging the federal government to establish incentive programs for states and districts willing to experiment with systems of compensating teachers, supporting them, evaluating their performance, and awarding them tenure.

The NCTQ paper found little evidence of such experimentation. It found, for example, that only 15 states require districts to take student learning into account when evaluating teachers, and only 13 allow districts to dismiss a teacher after two unsatisfactory evaluations.

Because such evaluations are also tied to the system of granting tenure, many districts can grant tenure without consideration of teaching effectiveness, the analysis indicates. Tenure prohibits the dismissal of a teacher without “just cause,” a status that must be documented through a lengthy, typically costly due-process procedure.

On the compensation front, states did a better job creating incentives for teachers who work in shortage subjects or high-need schools; more than half the states had those policies in place. But only 16 states granted higher pay for teachers who improved student achievement.

The council assigned grades to each state in three areas: their policies for identifying teacher effectiveness, retaining effective teachers, and weeding out ineffective ones. It then averaged them for an overall score.

South Carolina earned the highest score, a B-minus, mainly because of a high grade for its comprehensive system for removing ineffective teachers. The majority of states fell in the D range, while the District of Columbia, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont received an overall grade of F.

The report’s focus on the topic of teacher effectiveness brought a strong rebuke from the 3.4 million-member National Education Association. In a statement, President Dennis Van Roekel argued that the analysis simplifies the factors that go into quality teaching and overemphasizes test scores.

“Test scores are imperfect measures of student learning and are even worse measures of teacher effectiveness,” he said.

Officials from the council underscored that a determination of teacher effectiveness based on measures of student learning should incorporate factors other than tests, such as frequent observation of teachers and examples of student work that are scored against a standardized rubric.

Will Changing Policies Help?

A group of stakeholders responding to the report largely agreed that state policies on the human-capital front were ineffective, but they were less enthusiastic about the ability of states to effect widescale changes by changing these policies.

“Regulations tend to protect and entitle,” said Brad Jupp, the senior academic adviser to the Denver school system who helped negotiate that district’s ProComp differentiated-compensation plan. “What we should be asking is, ‘Can regulations promote and reward?”

Richard C. Ianuzzi, the president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, a merged NEA-American Federation of Teachers affiliate, noted that states don’t always provide the resources needed to implement better policies on the ground. For instance, the report indicates that 24 states articulate a strong induction process for new teachers. But not all those states have provided the funding and resources to make those standards effective, NCTQ officials said.

Christopher Cerf, the deputy chancellor of the New York City school system, noted that state policies are not accidents, but grow out of a nexus of wrangling between politicians, interest groups, and regulators.

“The possibility that that’s going to change,” he said, “strikes me as an optimistic assessment.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week

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