Tag Archives: Arne Duncan

We Have to Say More About Teacher Evaluation Reforms Than Just “They Didn’t Work”

In a piece for Education Next released last month, I looked at the Obama-era push for better teacher evaluation systems. As states and cities turn the page on that particular set of reforms, I wanted to pause and reflect on what we can learn from the last eight years. In the piece, I nodded toward some of the successes of that effort but spent more time reflecting on what could have gone better. I focused on four major policy mistakes:

  1. A universal approach of trying to get all states and cities to pursue teacher evaluation reform efforts;
  2. A narrow definition that focused too much on the specific elements of evaluation systems without leaving room to accomplish the same goals in different ways;
  3. An emphasis on process over purpose, which paid too much attention to the evaluation systems themselves and not enough on the actual use of those systems;
  4. A collision in timing with the rollout of Common Core that proved politically and logistically challenging.

These failures do not invalidate the entire theory of action that teachers matter and that improving the policies around how school districts hire, evaluate, compensate, and train teachers could lead to better outcomes for students. Encouraging school districts to evaluate teachers and principals at least in part on student growth, and to make consequential decisions based on those determinations, was never going to be an easy shift. It required new policies, new systems, and better tools, not to mention changing a culture that treated teachers as interchangeable widgets. For all these reasons and more, we haven’t seen the widespread changes President Obama or his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, might have hoped for when they made teacher evaluation one of their signature policies.

Still, failing to change everything doesn’t mean we’ve learned nothing. There’s a growing body of evidence that evaluation reform can be a viable school improvement strategy for places that want to pursue it. In my piece I cited a randomized controlled trial of the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), which provided competitive grants for districts to revamp their evaluation and compensation systems. The study found that TIF led to gains equivalent to 10 percent of a year’s worth of learning in math and 11 percent in reading. There are other positive examples as well. Studies on evaluation reform efforts in Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, New York City, and Washington, D.C. have found that comprehensive evaluation systems can help identify teachers who need to improve their practice, nudge low-performing teachers out of the profession, and, ultimately, boost student achievement. To be sure, these cities all pursued different sets of reforms, but they had the common thread that they were all trying to identify and act on differences in teacher performance.

In total, these positive examples provide evidence in support of the underlying theory of action on teacher evaluation reforms. Rather than discarding this era and moving on, as states and advocates seem wont to do, we should learn from this massive effort: what worked and what didn’t work and why.

Go Forth and Improve, Teacher Preparation Programs. But Don’t Ask How.


Image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

A few weeks ago, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter calling out education schools. In it, he made several blunt remarks about the quality of teacher preparation programs, including that current teacher training “lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and […] leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.”

What the former Secretary’s letter didn’t include, however, were specifics on how preparation programs should improve. He talked a lot about grades, and about holding teachers to high standards, but that’s it.

At this point, you may be thinking: “You can’t expect him to get into the nitty gritty! The letter was more an op-ed than a policy brief.”

Sure. But then last week, the Department of Education released the final version of its long-awaited teacher preparation regulations. The regulations are an effort to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of the teachers they train after those teachers enter the classroom. Using teacher performance data, the regulations require states to create a system that rates programs as effective, at-risk, or low-performing.

Like the open letter, these regulations are devoid of specifics for how programs should improve. They say that states need to provide technical assistance for low-performing programs, for example, but don’t hint at what that support should look like. When the regulations were out for public comment, which were due in February 2015, several commenters suggested that the regulations should include specific prescriptions for what states need to do to support programs — but the Department declined, saying instead that states have “the discretion to implement technical assistance in a variety of ways.”

Why do both of these documents — representing the past and future of the highest education office — say practically nothing about how preparation programs can get better?

The answer is depressing: As a field, we don’t know how to build a better teacher preparation program.

That’s what Melissa Steel King and I found in our latest paper, A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. There’s half a century of research on what makes a good teacher, but that research provides only the barest outlines of what an effective preparation program should look like. So much of teacher prep research asks “Does it work?” when really we need to be asking, “How well does it work, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Continue reading

A Wonky But Important Argument for Annual Statewide Testing

In Saturday’s New York Times, I wrote a defense of annual statewide testing in reading and math. In the piece, I used data from the District of Columbia to illustrate that withdrawing from annual statewide testing would make it nearly impossible to hold schools accountable for the performance of specific groups of students. That’s a problem, because NCLB’s emphasis on historically disadvantaged groups forced schools to pay attention to these groups and led to real achievement gains. Today, 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores for black, Hispanic, and low-income students have never been higher.

To see how a move away from annual testing would affect subgroup accountability in other cities, I pulled data from Providence, Rhode Island and Richmond, Virginia. The results confirm that a move away from annual testing would leave many subgroups and more than 1 million students functionally “invisible” to state accountability systems.  Continue reading

Let’s Make a Deal: The ESEA Compromise Congress Should Make

Just like your favorite sitcom, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a will they/won’t they relationship for eight years over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Could the 114th Congress be the season where they finally get together? That’s what some ardent, right-leaning ESEA watchers (like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess) are hoping, given their general fandom of Senator Lamar Alexander’s current approach. But despite hopes for consensus, Alexander’s draft bill actually makes it harder to reconcile the largest issue on the table: the federal role in education.

Let me explain. New hope for an ESEA compromise isn’t just driven by ideology. On the policy surface, it also appears that the stage could be set for a deal. Everyone agrees on a more limited set of federal requirements than NCLB. For example, both political right and left think that states (not the feds) should play a starring role in creating school rating systems based on performance, graduation rates, and other measures; identifying low-performing schools; and designing and implementing interventions to improve them.

Further bolstering the mood? The annual testing plot-twist nobody everybody saw coming appears to be a mere diversion to create fresh conflict between the major players, instead of recycling storylines from past seasons (see: the 112th Congress “Should teacher evaluations be mandated?” and the 113th “Should Title I funding be portable?”). In predictable fashion, the annual testing drama seems likely to be resolved mid-season. There are just too many key political players (e.g. Kline, Murray, Boehner, Duncan), civil rights organizations, business groups, and state leaders defending annual testing for Alexander to open the grade-span testing floodgates.

Thus, old conflicts are set to re-emerge in the coming episodes of the reauthorization drama. And none looms larger than “What is the appropriate federal role?” It’s the “We were on a break!” conflict driving the entire ESEA reauthorization plot. Continue reading

My Reaction to K-12 Issues in SOTU