Alexander: Washington Telling States How to Evaluate Teachers Has Caused “Enormous Backlash”

At hearing on teacher and principal evaluation, says states must own evaluation systems – Washington overreach “makes a hard thing even harder”

Posted on January 27, 2015

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“Given all of the great progress that states and local school districts have made on standards, accountability, tests, and teacher evaluation over the last 30 years—you’ll get a lot more progress with a lot less opposition if you leave those decisions there.”  –Lamar Alexander 

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 27 –U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate education committee, today said Washington must encourage—but not mandate—teacher and principal evaluation systems if they want to improve the nation’s 100,000 public schools.

“My experience is that finding a way to fairly reward better teaching is the holy grail of K-12 education—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. Let’s not mandate it from Washington if we want them to own it and make it work.”

The chairman’s remarks follow:

Today’s hearing is all about better teaching—how we can create an environment so teachers, principals, and other leaders can succeed.

Governors around the country are focused on one issue: better jobs for the citizens in their states. And it doesn’t take very long for a governor, which I once was, to come to the conclusion that better schools mean better jobs and a better life.

Since no one has figured out how to pass a better parents law, it doesn’t take long to realize how important a great teacher is.

I certainly came to that conclusion quickly in 1984, when I was governor of Tennessee and I considered the holy grail of K-12 education to be finding a fair way to encourage and reward outstanding teaching.

I spent a year and a half, devoting 70 percent of my time, persuading the legislature to establish a career ladder—a master teacher program that 10,000 teachers voluntarily climbed. They were paid more and had the opportunity for 10- and 11-month contracts.

Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pay teachers more for teaching well. Rarely a week goes by that a teacher doesn’t stop me and say, “Thank you for the master teacher program.”

It was not easy. A year before I’d been in a meeting of southern governors and one of them said, “Who’s gonna be brave enough to take on the teachers union?”

I had a year and a half brawl with the National Education Association before I could pass our teacher evaluation program.

Since then, there’s been an explosion of efforts to answer these questions a great number of states and school districts are tackling: How do we determine who is an effective teacher? How do we relate student achievement to teacher effectiveness? And, having decided that, how do we reward and support outstanding teaching so we don’t lose our best teachers?

In 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards began to strengthen standards in teaching and professionalize the teaching workforce. To date, more than 110,000 teachers in all 50 states and DC have achieved National Board Certification.

In 2006, the Teacher Incentive Fund was created to help states and districts create performance-based compensation system for teachers based on evaluation results.

According to the National Center on Teacher Quality, in 2014:

  • 27 states required annual evaluations for all teachers
  • 44 states required annual evaluations for new teachers
  • 35 states required student achievement and/or student growth to be a significant or the most significant measure of teacher performance.

So when I came to Washington as a United States Senator in 2003, everyone expected—since I thought rewarding outstanding teaching was the Holy Grail—that I would make everyone do it. To the surprise of some, my answer was no—you can’t do it from Washington. Nevertheless, over the last 10 years, Washington has tried.

Here is how: No Child Left Behind told states that all teachers of core academic subjects needed to be “Highly Qualified” by 2006, and it prescribed that definition in a very bureaucratic manner. That hasn’t worked. I don’t know of many people who really want to keep that outdated definition—even Secretary Duncan waived the requirements related to highly qualified teachers when he granted waivers to 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately, the Secretary replaced those requirements with a new mandate requiring teacher evaluation systems—first in Race to the Top, which gave nearly $4.4 billion to states, and second, in the waivers.

To get a waiver from No Child Left Behind, a state and each local school district must develop a teacher and principal evaluation system with seven required elements—such as that it will use at least three performance levels; and will use multiple measures, including student growth; and will include guidelines and supports for implementation—and each element must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The problem is that, after 30 years, we are still figuring out how to do this.

Our research work on measuring growth in student achievement and relating it fairly to teacher effectiveness was started in 1984, but former Institute of Education Science Director Russ Whitehurst told the New York Times in 2012 that states "are racing ahead based on promises made to Washington or local political imperatives that prioritize an unwavering commitment to unproven approaches. There's a lot we don't know about how to evaluate teachers reliably and how to use that information to improve instruction and learning.”

The second problem is that some states haven’t been willing or able to implement the systems the way the U.S. Department of Education wants them to.

California, Iowa, and Washington state had their waiver requests denied or revoked over the issue of teacher evaluations.

In Iowa’s case, it was because the state legislature wouldn’t pass a law that satisfied the requirement that allowed for teachers and principals to be placed into at least three performance levels – not effective, effective, and highly effective.

California simply ignored the Administration’s conditions when they applied for a waiver, particularly the requirement that teacher evaluation systems be based significantly on the results of state standardized tests.

In April, Washington state’s waiver was revoked by Secretary Duncan because their state legislature would not pass legislation requiring standardized test results to be used in teacher and principal evaluation systems—instead the law in Washington allows local school districts to decide which tests they use.

Whether or not this federal interference with state education law offends your sense of federalism, like it does mine, it has proved impractical.

The federal government in its well-intentioned way, trying to say, “We want better teachers, and we’re going to tell you exactly how to do it, and you must do it now” has created an enormous backlash. It’s made even harder something that was already hard.

Even in Tennessee, despite 30 years of experience and nearly $500 million in Race to the Top funding, the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system has been described in an article in my hometown newspaper as “contentious.”

Given all of the great progress that states and local school districts have made on standards, accountability, tests, and teacher evaluation over the last 30 years—you’ll get a lot more progress with a lot less opposition if you leave those decisions there.

I think we should return to states and local school districts decisions for measuring the progress of our schools and for evaluating and measuring the effectiveness of teachers.

I know it is tempting to try to improve teachers from Washington. I also hear from governors and school superintendents who say that if “Washington doesn’t make us do it, the teachers unions and opponents from the right will make it impossible to have good evaluation systems and better teachers.”

And I understand what they’re saying. After I left office, the NEA watered down Tennessee’s Master Teacher program.

Nevertheless, the Chairman’s Staff Discussion draft eliminates the Highly Qualified Teacher requirements and definition, and allows states to decide the licenses and credentials that they are going to require their teachers to have.

And despite my personal support for teacher evaluation, the draft doesn’t mandate teacher and principal evaluations.

Rather, it enables States to use the more than $2.5 billion under Title II to develop, implement, or improve these evaluation systems.

In a state like Tennessee, that would mean $39 million potentially available for continuing the work Tennessee has well underway for evaluating teachers, including linking performance and student achievement.

In addition, it would expand one of the provisions in No Child Left behind – the Teacher Incentive Fund that Secretary Spellings recommended putting into law and that Secretary Duncan said, in testimony before the HELP Committee in January 2009, was “One of the best things I think Secretary Spellings' has done…the more we can reward excellence, the more we can incentivize excellence, the more we can get our best teachers to work in those hard-to-staff schools and communities, the better our students are going to do.” 

And third, it would emphasize the idea of a Secretary’s report card—calling considerable attention to the bully pulpit a secretary or president has to call attention to states that are succeeding or failing.

For example, I remember President Reagan visited Farragut High School in Knoxville in 1984 to call attention to our Master Teacher program. It caused the Democratic speaker of our House of Representatives to say, “This is the American way,” and come up with an amendment to my proposal that was critical to its passage. President Reagan didn’t order every other state to do what Tennessee was doing, but the president’s bully pulpit made a real difference.

Thomas Friedman recently told a group of senators that one of his two rules of life is that he’s never met anyone who washed a rented car.

In other words, people take care of what they own.

My experience is that finding a way to fairly reward better teaching is the holy grail of K-12 education—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.

Let’s not mandate it from Washington if we want them to own it and make it work.

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