The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress have overshadowed pretty much all other education coverage this week. And as you’ve probably seen, Tennessee and the District of Columbia grabbed headlines for posting the biggest gains in student scores.
Not surprisingly, advocates, policy wonks, and reporters are now trying to figure out why the two historically low-achieving locales topped the growth chart.
Some commentators have been quick to cite changes to teacher evaluation and tenure processes in these jurisdictions as the indisputable explanation, claiming they improved teaching. D.C. and Tennessee were both early adopters of evaluation systems that factor in student achievement, implementing them in 2009 and 2011, respectively. (Most other states have since followed suit.) They are also both home to a handful of other recent, controversial policy changes that advocate stricter accountability for teachers.
The editorial board at The Wall Street Journal leapt into the discussion this morning:
Between 2010 and 2012, about 4 percent of D.C. teachers—and nearly all of those rated “ineffective"—were dismissed. About 30 percent of teachers rated “minimally effective” left on their own, likely because they didn’t receive a pay bump and were warned that they could be removed within a year if they failed to shape up.
Clearing out the deadwood appears to have lifted scores. D.C. led the nation in student progress.
And of Tennessee, the conservative-leaning board writes:
One glaring problem was that teachers were evaluated only twice every 10 years, and collective-bargaining agreements prevented the state from requiring more accountability.
In 2011, Republican Governor Bill Haslam and the GOP legislature eliminated collective bargaining for teachers, which gave local districts the whip hand to change teacher contracts. The state also established a new evaluation system that weighs student achievement, increased to five years of service from three before teachers get tenure, and linked pay and job security to performance.
The results are striking...
Richard Whitmire, author of a 2011 book about D.C.'s former school chancellor Michelle Rhee (and once blogger for Education Week), also makes the argument in USA TODAY that accountability measures have made teachers better. In Tennessee, he writes, “It’s not just that the evaluations are tied to how much students learn; it’s that they involve actual feedback to teachers based on what great instruction looks like.” And in D.C., which instituted performance pay, he said, “Overall, the better teachers stayed and tried harder, encouraged by the prospect of being rewarded. The ‘minimally effective’ teachers tended to look for other lines of work.”
While these types of claims are compelling and even plausible, Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk offers a strong word of caution: “It is very difficult to draw direct lines between any one policy and results on NAEP.”
In his story last summer on the misuse of NAEP results, Sawchuk quoted Grover M. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, as saying that people using the data this way are “committing the fundamental and almost inexcusable error of leaping to the causal conclusion they prefer, when hundreds of others are possible.”
To judge by a Twitter exchange with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Tom Loveless, a former Harvard public policy professor and now senior fellow at Brookings, agrees:
It suggests nothing of the kind. NAEP results can’t be used this way. @NickKristof
— Tom Loveless (@tomloveless99) November 8, 2013
Loveless expanded on this in an interview with The Washington Post. "[NAEP] is like a thermometer—it’ll tell you whether you have a fever, but it won’t tell you why,” he said. “It’s misused all the time by people who have agendas, both on the left and right. It’s very helpful to have measures of how we’re doing, but all of us want to know why, and these data are not terribly helpful in telling us why.”
Even so, we’re likely to hear more about the progress in Tennessee and D.C.—and the supposed whys behind it—in the coming months.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.