Could Seattle Be a Test Case for Teacher Evaluation in a Post-ESEA Era?

Seattle Public Schools students headed back to school late this week after a teachers strike delayed the start of the school year by about one week. The main grounds for the strike were lack of teacher pay increases and heavy teacher workloads—both of which got sorted out in the deal negotiated by the Seattle Education Association (SEA) and the school district. Another significant result of the negotiation? Student test scores will no longer be tied to teacher evaluations.

A major reason the SEA was able to slide in the negotiation about student test scores and teacher evaluations is the fact that Washington State does not have an ESEA waiver, which requires student growth to be a “significant” part of evaluations (how significant is largely left up to the states). For teachers of tested grades and subjects, the waiver rules require that state tests be included at some level. Interestingly, the ESEA bills moving to conference in the coming months will not include teacher evaluation, effectively removing the federal requirement for the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation. All of this raises the question: could what happened in Seattle be an indicator of what may happen to teacher evaluation systems across the country?

Importantly, teacher evaluation was not the main cause of the Seattle teachers strike and may not be strike-worthy in other districts in the future, but it is possible that it will similarly be a second-tier issue with which teacher unions can negotiate if and when federal requirements are removed. Another caveat is that teachers’ strikes are illegal in many states, but that is true even in the case of Washington and it didn’t stop Seattle.

Are we likely to see more teachers’ strikes after ESEA reauthorization? Maybe not. After all, this strike is the largest one since Chicago in 2012 and there weren’t many in recent history before that. But Seattle is the first example of what teacher evaluation retrenchment looks like when the federal stopgap is removed. If Congress removes that stopgap for all states, will states keep their evaluation policies intact? Will district leaders find teacher evaluation reforms worth fighting for? Time will tell.