Author Archives: Kaitlin Pennington

Student Learning Should Matter for Teacher Evaluation Ratings, But It Still Doesn’t

Students are not learning, but teachers are told they’re doing their jobs effectively. This oxymoron is not new in American education, but recent teacher evaluation laws were supposed to demolish it by better aligning teacher evaluation scores and student learning outcomes.

NCTQ Report PicThe problem is: the laws aren’t working as intended. Even with new laws in place, the vast majority of teachers across the country continue to receive a rating equivalent to effective or higher. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) provides a new explanation for the phenomenon.

The report reveals that in almost all states, there are teachers who receive an overall evaluation score of “effective” or “highly effective” despite receiving a low score for leading students to academic achievement. This is possible because these teachers receive high scores on other parts of the evaluation such as principal and peer observations, student and parent surveys, and other district and state measures. As NCTQ’s new report details, the guidance and rules that structure states’ evaluation laws allow teachers who receive uneven scores throughout their evaluation to still be rated as effective practitioners — even when data show their students are not learning.

NCTQ’s report provides a new opportunity to discuss the negative consequences of misalignment between teacher evaluation and student learning outcomes. The following are a few damaging outcomes of such misalignment: Continue reading

New Bellwether Analysis on Michigan Education Provides Facts for DeVos Debate

When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as his Secretary of Education, she was not well known on a national scale: her behind-the-scenes advocacy and philanthropic work has concentrated on her home state of Michigan. But DeVos’ nomination put a national spotlight on education in Michigan, and her critics and boosters alike have been making a variety of claims about Michigan that are confusing and contradictory.

Slide1To address this, Bellwether just released a fact base on education in Michigan to inform the conversation about DeVos’ work there and what it might mean for the Department of Education if she is confirmed.

Our slide deck report addresses a number of key questions: How are Michigan students performing, and what do achievement gaps look like for low-income students and students of color? Do charter schools in Michigan produce better results than district-run public schools, and if so, by how much? Why does Michigan have so many charter schools operated by for-profit companies?

Among the things we found:

  • Michigan typically ranks in the lowest third of states in terms of student proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessment results show wide achievement gaps by racial/ethnic group and income level.
  • Educational authority in Michigan is highly decentralized, with multiple state governing entities and over 40 charter school authorizers.
  • About 150,000 Michigan students attend public charter schools, making up 10 percent of the student population.
  • Another 200,000 students, or 13 percent, take advantage of inter-district choice options to attend schools outside of their home district.
  • On average, students attending charter schools learn more than comparable students attending district-run schools. However, producing greater learning gains compared to schools serving similar students is a low bar because most Michigan charters are in Detroit, one of the lowest-performing large, urban school districts in the country.
  • Repeated reform efforts to improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not produced academic improvements for students or solved the ongoing financial crisis in the school district. A new law reinstates local control over DPS, limits charter school expansion to nationally accredited authorizers, and creates an A-F accountability system for both charter schools and traditional public schools.

Through data analysis and a deeper dive into the context of the Michigan education landscape, we hope to inform the ongoing debate about DeVos and give new insight into education in Michigan. The state has been a laboratory for school choice and educational reform efforts, and demands a more complete context and deeper analysis than sound bytes can provide. Read the full report here and let us know what you think.

Diving Deeper into Michigan Data in Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Hearing Last Night

During her confirmation hearing last night, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, fielded questions from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee. As we predicted, several committee members asked DeVos about her involvement in education policy and politics in her home state of Michigan and in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). In particular, Senator Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) used Michigan and DPS data to press DeVos on accountability, charter school oversight, and school improvement.

In many cases, however, the questions and answers both misrepresented or oversimplified the data. To be fair, the time constraints and pressure of a confirmation hearing make it difficult to fully dig into the nuance of an entire state’s complex education history. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners accurately evaluate DeVos, we are releasing a fact-base about the education policy landscape in Michigan after the Inauguration. But until then, here are explanations for a few Michigan data points mentioned in last night’s hearing (note: all speakers’ talking points have been paraphrased for clarity): Continue reading

What is the Purpose of Teacher Evaluation Today? A Conversation Between Bellwether and The Fordham Institute

BW picTeacher evaluation was one of President Obama’s signature policies, and a controversial element of education reform during his tenure. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which does not require states and districts to implement performance-based teacher evaluations like No Child Left Behind waivers did, teacher evaluation policy has largely fallen out of the public narrative. But that does not mean states or districts know how they are going to proceed with teacher evaluation policy — in fact, its future remains unclear in this new era of lessened federal oversight.

In December 2016, Bellwether Education Partners and The Thomas B. Fordham Institute independently released two reports centered on teacher evaluation and its consequences. Bellwether’s report summarizes the teacher evaluation policy landscape and points out potential risks for teacher evaluation in the wake of the passage of ESSA. The Fordham Institute’s report studies 25 districts to determine if those districts can terminate veteran teachers once evaluation systems have deemed them ineffective.

fordham picBoth reports offer a glimpse into ongoing challenges and opportunities with teacher evaluation reform, but they have very different analyses. To understand our different approaches and the places where we might overlap on teacher evaluation policy, Bellwether and Fordham hosted an email conversation between the report authors. Below is a transcript of the exchange between Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead and Fordham’s Victoria McDougald and David Griffith.

Fordham’s report emphasized dismissing ineffective veteran teachers and Bellwether’s report highlighted how the field has switched the focus of teacher evaluation to professional development. Are these aims incompatible? Understanding the core purpose of teacher evaluation systems is especially important as states and districts consider making changes in the ESSA era. Each exchange below ends with a question for the other organization’s authors to respond to. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead: When we wrote our report, we grappled with what policymakers, teachers, and the public see as teacher evaluation’s purpose or “theory of action.” From the onset of reforms, there was inconsistent messaging. Some said teacher evaluation would be used primarily to inform employment decisions. Others said the systems would inform teachers’ professional development. Over time, many said the systems would do both. The inconsistent messaging about the purpose of teacher evaluation enabled opponents to define the systems as primarily punitive measures targeting teachers.

This led advocates to lose hold of the teacher evaluation narrative. Although very few teachers are rated ineffective and – as you write about in your report – even fewer actually lose their jobs because of poor evaluation ratings, many teachers currently view performance-based teacher evaluation systems as mechanisms to harm them.

But focusing narrowly on ineffective teachers may be the wrong emphasis. We believe that teacher evaluation is important because these systems can be used to define common expectations for effective teaching practice, facilitate data-driven conversations about instruction, and reward effective teaching in order to retain the most-skilled teachers. In the past several years, many states have used the systems to do this – in fact the most differentiation of teacher practice is happening at the high end of the spectrum between “effective” and “highly effective” teachers.

So while it is troubling that the systems have not exited poor performing teachers from the profession like many early teacher evaluation advocates hoped they would, the reformed systems have made progress over the binary systems they replaced. Yet the focus on firing teachers continues to dominate the public narrative.

Now because the Every Student Succeeds Act allows for more changes to teacher evaluation, many states are trying to rid their systems from connection to the “firing bad teachers” narrative. They are doing so by making it even harder to objectively determine ineffective teaching (and exit teachers because of it) by reducing or eliminating the main quantitative data point in many teacher evaluation systems – student achievement and growth data.  The loss of this objective data to balance subjective measures like classroom observations and student and parent surveys negatively impacts the reliability of the systems. Moreover it reinforces a troubling age-old message, that great teaching is determined by teacher input and is divorced from student output. This has implications for the future of the teaching profession and the human capital talent interested in joining a profession that is evaluated on these metrics.

When you wrote your report, did you consider teacher evaluation’s theory of action? Do you think performance-based teacher evaluations will survive in the ESSA era if the narrative around them continues to focus on firing ineffective teachers?

Fordham’s Victoria McDougald: While teacher evaluation and dismissal are obviously closely intertwined, our report – Undue Process: Why Bad Teachers in Twenty-Five Diverse Districts Rarely Get Fired – shines light on the latter, equally important yet far less-studied issue. In it, we ask: after nearly a decade of teacher evaluation reform, is it any easier to exit an ineffective veteran teacher from the classroom? Dismissal data are notoriously difficult to come by, but as recently as 2013, just 0.2 percent of tenured teachers in a typical state were dismissed for poor performance.

After combing through collective bargaining agreements, employee handbooks, and state laws, our study yielded bleak findings. Overall, we found that dismissing underperforming teachers remains far too hard (in all twenty-five diverse districts included in our study, significant barriers remain in place to doing so).

Should the conversation around teacher evaluation focus exclusively on firing ineffective teachers? Certainly not. Continue reading

Third Presidential Debate Recap: The American Electorate is Left Guessing on K-12 Education Policy

Clinton_and_Trump_cartoon_illustration

Illustration by VectorOpenStock.com

The third and final presidential debate is over. Viewers and the media agree that while the last square-off between Clinton and Trump had its expected off-topic and personal exchanges, it was the most substantive of the three debates. Yet, once again, the candidates did not debate education policy.

To her credit, Clinton did mention education. Like in the past debates, the topic came up when she touted her economic plan. “I feel strongly we have to have an education system that starts with preschool and goes through college,” she said. “That’s why I want more technical education in high schools and community colleges, real apprenticeships to prepare people for the real jobs of the future.”

Clinton took a page from her running mate Tim Kaine’s book when mentioning career and technical education, a policy area near and dear to his heart (though he did not mention it during the vice presidential debate). She then went on to mention her plan of making college debt free for families earning less than $125,000 — a plan she worked on with Bernie Sanders, and one of the education topics she often mentions during public speaking events.

But those hoping to hear Clinton talk about her plans for students in elementary and middle school were left disappointed. Both Clinton and Trump finished the debate cycle with negligible mentions of K-12 policy.

That leaves the education community guessing at what K-12 policy might look like under Clinton or Trump. If the candidates themselves or their running mates won’t talk about the issue, the next best place to look is their advisers and surrogates. Continue reading