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Unions Still Mulling Harkin ESEA Bill

By Alyson Klein — October 12, 2011 2 min read
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The two national teachers’ unions say they have their homework cut out for them in digesting the 800-plus-page bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, put forth by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

But early reaction suggests that evaluations could be a potential point of pushback on the legislation unveiled Oct. 11.

The Harkin ESEA proposal would require states to create teacher evaluation systems, with educator input. And there would be no need to do “value-add” testing, which would track the impact individual teachers have had on particular students.

But states would have to come up with four different categories for teacher evaluations. And they would have to be informed by student outcomes, as well as classroom observations. Evaluations would have to be used for professional development, but the bill stops short of requiring them to be used for personnel decisions (like hiring and firing).

Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the NEA, flagged the evaluation language as one area of concern.

“The federal government does not hire or fire teachers, and therefore should not be overly prescriptive in teacher evaluation,” Kusler said.

Kusler found much to like, however, in the continued focus on disaggregating student data to show how particular populations of students (such as English-language learners, students in special education, and racial minorities) are doing relative to their peers.

“We don’t believe that this is a step away from accountability,” she said of the provisions. “It’s requiring states to step up to the plate” and ensure that all students are succeeding, she said. Kusler also praised language in the bill she said would help English-language learners, including a requirement that states set standards for English-language proficiency.

NEA is happy to see the bill would offer some additional flexibility in the turnaround models for the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. But the union says it is still too prescriptive and wouldn’t allow for enough local flexibility and innovation.

It’s too early to say whether NEA ultimately will put its seal of approval on the bill, Kusler said, since the union is still sharing the language with its members and getting their feedback.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, also said in a statement that AFT is still delving into the bill. And she singled out the evaluation language, although she did not take an official stance on it.

The Harkin-Enzi bill also addresses teacher evaluation, a new area in federal education law. When done correctly, evaluations with tools and supports for teachers can lead toward a path of vibrant instruction. When done incorrectly, it becomes just a human resources sorting mechanism that devalues teachers, limits their growth and undercuts our children's education. ... Valid and reliable teacher development and evaluation systems should be based on multiple measures, not just test scores, and should provide teachers with the feedback, tools and conditions they need for continuous improvement.

For everything you ever wanted to know about the bill’s teacher provisions, check out my Teacher Beat colleague Steve Sawchuk’s take here.