Teaching Profession Opinion

When the Policy Hammer Falls

By Justin Baeder — January 03, 2011 2 min read
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Why did Race to the Top scoring criteria mandate that teacher evaluations be based heavily (up to 50%) on student test scores? Why did states play along, passing scores of laws requiring just such a shift? Why are so many current education reform efforts focused on measuring teacher quality?

The answer to all these question lies, in part, in policymakers’ frustrations over how little control they have over what happens in the classroom. As any teacher knows, whatever storms swirl outside, it’s always possible to “close the door and teach.” Since No Child Left Behind, policymakers have been hard at work developing new tools to pry open classroom doors, but even high-stakes accountability can’t force a teacher to do something he or she doesn’t want to when no one is looking.

“Walkthroughs” have become part of the leadership repertoire in education; at best, they’re a way for leaders to get out of their offices and get closer to the front lines of practice. At worst, they’re a policing tool, a beat walked to ensure that teachers are carrying out their orders faithfully.

If policymakers can convince school leaders to police their priorities, part of their problem is solved. If not, they resort to end-runs around educational leaders, such as state-level requirements about turning test scores into teacher evaluations. However, the design and implementation of evaluation systems is still a local issue that must be worked out between districts and teachers’ unions.

The problem is that sometimes the tools available to policymakers are very poor matches to the work they’re trying to accomplish. Imagine that you’re a state legislator and you want to improve education. What are your options? You can’t fire teachers, change curriculum, or ensure that certain techniques are used. The policy tools at your disposal are blunt—like hammers. And we know what happens when all you have is a hammer.

Educational practice can only improve through and with the people who are carrying it out. Meaningful improvement can never happen around or in spite of the professionals doing the work on a daily basis.

The problem, clearly, is that we principals have been doing a terrible job of being managers in our education system. We’ve been rating terrible employees as satisfactory year after year, while complaining about union protectionism.

But this problem can only be solved at its own level—by improving the practice of principals. It can’t be solved through workarounds such as formulaic teacher evaluations based on test scores. Any attempt to measure teacher performance is complex and produces noisy data, and only those familiar with the on-the-ground reality are in a position to interpret such noisy data.

If you’ve set a policy but can’t get principals to police it for you, this might be a sign that we need to talk more about how the policy intersects with practice. Swinging the hammer harder won’t turn that Phillips head.

So, to all the policymakers out there who care about quality education in this country: let’s work together. Let’s each recognize what the tools we respectively have at our disposal can and can’t accomplish, and let’s talk about what needs to change so we can get the results we need on behalf of kids.

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The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.