Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill agree that teacher evaluations are necessary to identify and reward good teachers, target those in need of more professional support, phase out others who are underperforming, and help ensure a thriving public education system.
But the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its latest iteration as the No Child Left Behind Act, isn’t likely to require states to use them.
Teacher evaluations are one of the many education policy issues that cross party lines. In this case, Republicans want to steer clear of anything that smacks of federal control. Democrats, who have historically represented the concerns of teachers’ unions, are wary of the increasing impact of student test scores on evaluations and how those evaluations are used in new compensation systems.
“My experience is that finding a way to fairly reward better teaching is the holy grail of K-12 education,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “But Washington will get the best long-term result by creating an environment in which states and communities are encouraged, not ordered, to evaluate teachers.”
Mr. Alexander’s remarks came during a Jan. 27 committee hearing on teachers and leaders—the second in a series focusing on specific aspects of the NCLB law, which members of Congress in both chambers are in the process of reauthorizing.
That lawmakers are shying away from requiring teacher evaluations in any proposed reauthorization bill isn’t such a surprise.
During attempts to overhaul the law in the 113th Congress, the Republican-controlled House stripped out language from a reauthorization bill that would have required states to evaluate teachers. Similar language didn’t get enough support to be included in renewal legislation passed through the Senate education committee, which at the time Democrats controlled.
While the discussion draft introduced Jan. 13 by Sen. Alexander wouldn’t require states to adopt teacher evaluations, it would still allow states to use federal funding to do so.
That’s because, among several other things, the draft would turn Title II funding into block grants, which are given to states for various programs that support teachers and principals, including teacher evaluations, professional development, and pre-service teacher preparation.
The proposal touches on several additional teacher provisions as well, including enshrining in law and increasing appropriations for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create alternative-pay programs.
In addition, the draft would eliminate the current law’s “highly qualified” teacher provisions; states would still have to guarantee that teachers meet state licensure requirements. The measure would also loosen the requirements that ensure students in high-poverty schools have access to as many qualified teachers as those in wealthier schools. Instead, it would require states to provide some assurance that low-income students get good teachers and school leaders, and strong instructional programs.
The hearing teased out the first major policy chasm between Republicans and Democrats in the ESEA reauthorization.
Under the draft, both Title II and Title IV, the latter of which funds things like school climate, school safety, and mental health, would be converted to block grants, and states would be able to transfer 100 percent of the funding between the two grants.
Most education policy and politics watchers expected this would be a problem for Democrats. Ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said early on in the process that she expected such language would be included in the draft bill.
During the hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., railed against language in the draft, arguing that turning the funds into block grants would give states millions of dollars without any requirement that they spend any of the money on teachers.
“Maybe it will happen sometimes,” Ms. Warren said about states directing money to help teachers, “but nothing in this proposal requires states to spend a single dollar on teachers.”
Asked in an interview after the hearing whether there might be room for negotiating with Democrats on those issues, Mr. Alexander laughed.
“That’s a traditional difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
Should Congress succeed in overhauling the federal K-12 law, the lack of teacher evaluation requirements will likely stop in its tracks the Obama administration’s efforts to push states to adopt evaluation systems based in part on student test scores and performance-based compensation systems.
Those policies are at the heart of the U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waivers, which for the last couple of years have dictated how states operate their education systems. But as the administration’s tenure comes to a close, its sway over states has already begun to diminish.
Waivers were a popular punching bag at the Senate hearing, including jabs by Terry Holliday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky.
“In order to create a system of support for teachers and school leaders, we as state leaders in education do not need review or approval from the U.S. Department of Education,” he said.
He agreed with the intent of the waivers and even said that the entire teacher-and-principal pipeline should be revamped. But he underscored that such changes take time and that none of them will be successful if they are not done in collaboration with teachers and principals.
“Our teacher-and-leader-effectiveness systems took years to develop, and we are continuing to improve the systems,” he said.
Timeline for Reauthorization
The Senate education committee was to convene again Feb. 3, for a discussion about innovation in education at the state and local level.
Mr. Alexander said he still anticipates completing markup of the reauthorization bill by March, but conceded that the path forward after that may take some time.
“We have to go to the floor for an extended period of debate and discussion,” Mr. Alexander said. “Then we have to go to conference, and then we have to discuss it with the president. So this isn’t the final word. This is step one.”
The House of Representatives is slated to begin work on a reauthorization bill as early as this week.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House education committee, said he will use the Student Success Act—the bill he ushered through the House in the 113th Congress—as the starting point for the legislative process, which he said is also on track to clear the House by March.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., pushed back on the chairman’s decision to forego hearings on the reauthorization, arguing in a letter sent to Kline late last week that the new committee members would benefit from exploring the various policy issues included in the reauthorization.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Evaluation Mandate Unlikely in ESEA Rewrite