A Glut of New Reports Raise Doubts About Obama’s Teacher Agenda

Although much of the Obama administration's education reform agenda promotes test score-based teacher evaluation and pay, the tide seems to be significantly turning against such policies, at least among wonks and academics. 

Last week the National Academies of Science published a synthesis of 10 years worth of research on 15 American test-based incentive programs, finding they demonstrated few good results and a lot of negative unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, the National Center on Education and the Economy reported that high-achieving nations have focused on reforming their teacher education and professional development pipelines, not on efforts to measure student "growth" and tie such numbers to individual teachers.

Today, a paper coauthored by the Asia Society and the Department of Education itself calls Singapore a model for teacher evaluation. That nation's teachers are assessed on four "holistic" qualities, including the "character development of their students" and "their relationship to community organizations and to parents." There is no attempt to create a mathematical formula to tie student test scores to teacher evaluation or pay.

Lastly, even the free-market American Enterprise Institute has a new paper, by Fairfax County, Virginia Superintendent Jack Dale, arguing that the path forward should be differentiated pay based on teams of teachers taking on additional mentoring, curriculum development, and planning responsibilities. Test-based merit pay plans "miss a crucial point: teaching must be a collaborative team effort, and incentivizing individual teachers will not accomplish our ambitious goal," Dale writes.

Yes, there's a lot there to digest. The good news is, there are also some exciting policy alternatives.

After The American Prospect published, "The Test Generation," my feature story about different models for teacher evaluation in Colorado, a number of readers challenged my suggestion that policy makers have more to learn from Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy, which practices teacher peer-review, than from Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs, which runs a merit pay program tied to student test scores. 

MSLA, they said, is a small school in which it's easy to build trust among peers. It can practice extreme disretion in hiring, so it's less likely there will be bad teachers to weed out later on. 

All that is true in the case of MSLA, although we also know peer-review has also worked in some large American school districts, most notably Columbus and Toledo Ohio, both of which weeded out a significant number of poor-performing teachers using such systems. Now the New York Times' Michael Winerip profiles PAR, the teacher peer-review plan in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has fired 200 poor-performing teachers and encouraged another 300 to quit since its inception 11 years ago.

Unfortunately, federal dollars from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program are not going where Dr. Weast and the PAR program need to go. Montgomery County schools were entitled to $12 million from Race to the Top, but Dr. Weast said he would not take the money because the grant required districts to include students’ state test results as a measure of teacher quality. “We don’t believe the tests are reliable,” he said. “You don’t want to turn your system into a test factory.”

Weast, Montgomery's superintendent, is a visionary guy who speaks frequently about the need to build relationships of trust between communities, school administrators, and teachers–and actually follows up on the rhetoric with great policy-making. I'll give him the last word, from an April interview with the Washington Post:

You have close relations with labor.

I have close relations with people who work in the school business. They happen to be unionized, and I find that good, because it’s easier to actually visit with them because they have an organized structure. We have 22,000 employees. It’s just hard to have a sit-down conversation with all 22,000 of them.

Is there a downside to working with unions?


4 thoughts on “A Glut of New Reports Raise Doubts About Obama’s Teacher Agenda

  1. KSC

    “…the tide seems to be significantly turning against such policies, at least among wonks and academics.”

    Count parents, teachers, school board members, principals and superintendents in that tide.

    Without exception, everyone in my community is appalled by the Obama administration’s position on public education. There is little to distinguish him from the GOP on ed policy. That will be a problem in 2012. I cannot work for him this time around unless he changes direction, beginning with the dismissal of Arne Duncan.

  2. Mikhail Zinshteyn

    The NCEE paper accused the US of just dumping too much money aimlessly. Given that many of the top education ‘reformers’ have gone through programs sponsored by Broad and Gates, does it seem like this emphasis on incentivizing teachers is just the work of well-intentioned private money forcing policy makers to abandon more targeted and collaborative education improvement models you’ve outlined?

    And also, while it’s encouraging to see a superintendent like Dr. Weast turndown education dollars that will force him to grade his teachers by a highly volatile system of measurement, Montgomery County is wealthy. Do poorer districts have that option?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>