Every Student Succeeds Act

States Struggle to Define ‘Ineffective Teachers’ Under ESSA

By Daarel Burnette II — May 30, 2017 6 min read
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Teacher evaluations—both their role and the mechanics of carrying them out—are a politically fraught subject, and the Every Student Succeeds Act has kicked the dust up once again as states wrestle with how to comply with teacher-quality sections of the new law.

ESSA, which goes into effect this fall, does away with the “highly qualified teacher” mandates under its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. It also bans the U.S. secretary of education from dictating the ways in which states grade their teachers, a sore spot under the NCLB law.

At the same time, ESSA requires states to provide a single definition of “ineffective teachers” in the plans they submit to the federal government and then describe how they will ensure that poor and minority students aren’t being taught by a disproportionate number of them.

This shift in policy has reignited battles over who should stand in front of America’s classrooms, whether state or local leaders should make those decisions, and what information about teachers’ performance should be reported.

Tracking Teacher Quality

The No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, take different approaches to tallying and determining the quality of the teacher workforce.


  • Required “highly qualified teachers,” defined as those who have a bachelor’s degree, a state certification, and content knowledge in the subjects they taught.
  • To get waivers under the NCLB law, states had to design guidelines for teacher evaluations that used multiple measures of performance, including student growth based on state assessments as a significant factor.


  • Requires states to define “ineffective,” “out-of-field,” and “inexperienced” teacher. Prohibits the U.S. secretary of education from prescribing any indicators or specific measures of teacher, principal, or school leader effectiveness or quality through the approval of a state plan or through a waiver from the law.
  • Requires each state’s ESSA plan to describe ‘‘how the local educational agency will identify and address … any disparities that result in low-income students and minority students being taught at higher rates than other students by ineffective, inexperienced, or out-of-field teachers.”

Civil rights advocates and teacher accountability hawks have expressed deep frustration with how some states ignored this portion of the law in the 17 plans submitted so far. They are pushing the Education Department to get tough as those plans undergo peer review before the education secretary rules on them.

“We are disappointed at the extent to which some states have taken the opportunity, with the absence of strong regulations, to really include a very minimal amount of information about what they’re doing to close equity gaps,” said Elizabeth Ross, the managing director of state policy for the National Council on Teacher Quality, or NCTQ, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “From our read, some states failed to provide even the most minimal definitions, statutory terms, and data. No state is getting this perfect across the board. “

State education officials, meanwhile, say they struggle to collect teacher quality information from districts, many of which have different evaluation systems. Many states are navigating a myriad of privacy laws that can make collecting and analyzing teacher quality information challenging.

Further complicating things, district administrators, union officials, and state politicians often disagree over what indicators, including test scores, should be considered when deciding a teacher is ineffective. Navigating these political and technical hurdles is difficult for state departments, said Holly Boffy, the program director of teacher and leader development for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“I believe, if we’re successful, we’re going to see incredible improvement for our kids that ESSA is intended to serve,” Boffy said, referring to defining and tracking ineffective teachers. “I’m excited about this push in the law because it influences the way we think about how we support teachers.”

Early Signs

About a third of the states have submitted their ESSA plans so far, and their approaches in this area vary widely.

Oregon and the District of Columbia did not explicitly define ineffective teachers, saying they will do so at a later date.

Michael J. Kirst, the chairman of California’s state board of education, said that the state will likely punt the decision to the legislature.

Connecticut, which has a clear definition of ineffective teachers, said it does not track where those educators work since state law prohibits that information from being made available to the public.

North Dakota will calculate how much ineffective teaching occurs in schools, rather than how many ineffective teachers work at a school.

Vermont will name every teacher who has a teacher certification as effective.

In North Dakota and Vermont, the majority of schools are so tiny that merely identifying schools with ineffective teachers would place names and faces on teachers who need help, which amounts to public shaming, department officials in those states say.

“We don’t have the ability to look at the individual context and determine whether teachers are doing the best of their ability based on what’s going on in that classroom,” said Patrick Halladay, Vermont’s ESSA project manager.

And during the reporting process of this story, after questions from Education Week and NCTQ, Michigan officials realized they erroneously left that part out of their submitted plan. They revised and resubmitted the plan to the department.

Clash of Views

Teacher union officials in some states say ESSA contradicts itself by both banning federal meddling in teacher evaluations and asking states to define what an ineffective teacher is—essentially forcing the state to determine who does and doesn’t belong in the classroom.

“When I think back to a good teacher, the thing that might have made the biggest difference, I look back and say, ‘Can you really have measured that?’ ” said Ray Rossomando, the research and policy development specialist at the Connecticut Education Association. “Therein lies the difficulty. What’s beneficial is a reliance on observations and what’s grown to be rich conversations between supervisors and teachers.”

Civil rights activists, however, say the data collection piece is what will make ESSA effective in closing the nation’s stubborn achievement gap.

They say that by knowing and tracking where ineffective teachers are clustered, state agencies and local districts can more specifically tailor federal resources to schools most in need, and the public can more closely hold their school board members accountable.

“You can’t plausibly say you’re going to close gaps without addressing fundamental, longstanding allocation of resources and, principal among those things is great teaching,” said Liz King, the senior policy analyst and director of education policy of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Role of Data

In 2015, most states with waivers from the NCLB law held high-profile, sometimes-raucous meetings with teachers’ unions over how to comply with the federal requirement to include standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

States also in recent years have begun collecting statewide data on things such as teacher experience, how long teachers stay at schools and where they attended college. These are clues states can use to help come up with a single definition for an “ineffective teacher,” said Brennan McMahon Parton, the associate director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, an organization that works with state policymakers to improve data collection and use.

“No state is starting from scratch, and that’s why we were so disappointed to see that some didn’t even include the minimal amount of information in their plans,” Ross said.

In several submitted plans, state officials, in sometimes very plain language, say that what makes for an ineffective teacher is still an unsettled debate. (By contrast, there’s wide consensus in policy circles on what qualifies as an out-of-field and inexperienced teacher.)

Among those that have yet to submit a definition, the reasons vary.

The District of Columbia, for example, says in its submitted plan that the state doesn’t want to intrude on the autonomy of its many charter school operators. More than 40 percent of the city’s students attend more than 118 charter schools. District officials didn’t respond to several requests for an interview.

Oregon will hold a series of statewide meetings this summer to figure out how to define an ineffective teacher in a state where the evaluation models vary widely among the 213 districts, and where the state legislature has voted to remove the use of test scores in teacher evaluations.

“I think, somewhere along the lines, we kind of messed it all up,” said Timothy Boyd, the state department’s director of the office of teaching, learning, and assessment. “We’ve created a bit of high-stakes scenario where [teachers] have to pass the evaluation rather than being reflective on what they need to work on and how do we give them the right tools to get better.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as States Struggle to Define ‘Ineffective Teachers’


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