Tag Archives: President Obama

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.

Rubio and Obama Find Common Ground on the Skills Gap

A statement made by Florida Senator Marco Rubio has received a lot of attention in the days following this week’s GOP primary debate. He said, “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” As multiple fact-checkers have pointed out, the statement on relative income is not true, as both philosophy majors and professors make significantly more than welders. Despite the flawed example, Rubio’s larger point highlights a critical and very real issue for America’s economy – a significant gap between the supply and demand of skilled workers.

For example, a report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute released earlier this year predicts that America’s manufacturing industry will need 3.4 million workers over the next decade. But there is an expected shortage of 2 million workers. Why? The demand created by an “impending onslaught” of baby boomer retirements will greatly outpace the supply of skilled STEM workers.

An overwhelming number of employers also have challenges filling open positions due to a lack of qualified candidates – more than half report having open positions that they cannot fill. And they cite gaps in education related to specific skills and new and shifting technologies as two of the primary drivers of the problem.

There has been some recent action at the federal level to address this issue. For example, the Deloitte report notes that the Obama Administration has awarded nearly $1 billion in grants to community colleges that support creation and expansion of manufacturing education programs, and another $100 million is now available to establish apprenticeship programs.

Additionally, the Administration continues to implement its Experimental Sites Initiative, authorized under the Higher Education Act. It allows the Department of Education to waive certain statutory and regulatory requirements for Title IV federal aid, allowing for experimental federal aid eligibility to partnerships between colleges and alternative education providers, such as job skills boot camps, coding academies, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Congress is also turning an eye towards the skills gap issue, as both chambers’ education committees have indicated in recent weeks that they will work on reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The law, which supports secondary and postsecondary programs that train students for specific careers, has not been revamped since 2006. It’s still too early to tell where these efforts will lead, but maximizing the alignment of career training programs with the needs of employers will be critical.

Post-debate poll results from the Wall Street Journal (one of the debate’s sponsors) indicate a strong showing from Rubio, and he is on a good trajectory to compete for the nomination. He is also the only candidate that has made career and technical education a large part of his platform. But regardless of what happens in the 2016 election, it’s imperative that we continuing building momentum to address our growing skills gap. Otherwise, we’ll have unfilled jobs and unemployed workers that aren’t qualified to fill them.

Why Patty Murray is the Key to an ESEA Deal

Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released his hotly awaited discussion draft for a reauthorization of ESEA: the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015. But given that the 114th Congress has only been in session for a couple weeks, it should come as no surprise that this draft isn’t really new. It’s mostly his 2013 bill (of the same name) repackaged, as Chad Aldeman wrote earlier. Still, Alexander is determined to shepherd it through Congress by summer, despite the fact that this proposal failed to win a single Democratic vote in committee last time around.

But maybe times have changed. At least that’s what some, like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, are hoping. After all, in floor speeches yesterday, both Alexander and Senate HELP Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) praised the virtues of bipartisanship in fixing No Child Left Behind. And Murray is known for being a savvy consensus-builder in her time at the helm of the Senate Budget Committee.

I wouldn’t count on it this time. That’s because Alexander and Murray may agree on the tone of the debate, but not on policy. And in Senator Murray’s view, the problem with NCLB is not an out-of-control federal government. Rather, Murray defended the federal role, even though her own state lost its waiver from NCLB because of it, and laid out key principles for reauthorization that echoed Secretary Duncan’s remarks on Monday: the need for a new ESEA to ensure that states adopt high standards, better and more streamlined annual testing systems, and strong accountability policies, alongside increased investments in innovation and early childhood.

As leader of the committee Democrats and a member of Senate minority leadership, Murray’s ESEA stance is a leading indicator of how Alexander’s draft will be received, and proceed, through the Senate. Her remarks may not have been as forceful as the Secretary’s, but that only proves her value in the coming negotiations–as one that could bring the two sides closer together (UPDATE: especially after Duncan’s tepid reaction to the draft bill).

But in making so few changes to his 2013 draft bill, Alexander has yet to make a serious effort to bring Murray into the fold. And that’s a mistake. It’s true that her support may not be critical to getting Alexander the 60 votes he needs on the floor, especially if he tries to woo anti-testing, union-friendly Democrats. But her support remains critical to getting the 60 votes Alexander will need to get a bill to President Obama that he can sign.

If these are Murray’s policy preferences—and if Secretary Duncan insists on combatting the “soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional’”—then Alexander’s draft bill just isn’t going to cut it. Not in the super-majority Senate, and not on the President’s desk.

5 Reasons Getting Rid of Annual Testing is a Dumb Idea

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the incoming leaders of the Senate and House education committees, both say they are open to an ESEA rewrite that kills the requirement for states to test students annually. Or as I called it, the peel off the party wings approach to reauthorization. This bipartisan coalition bonds over their hatred of statewide annual testing, but not much else. And any bill they produce would be, in essence, a giant finger to the policies of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama–and Margaret Spellings and George W. Bush before them.

Like Mike Petrilli in this Flypaper post, I hope Alexander’s and Kline’s annual testing one-eighty is all just a bluff to try and get Democrats to give in on requiring states to develop teacher evaluations. And I hope they come to their senses and reveal a more centrist reauthorization proposal–with annual statewide testing, and data reporting, and school accountability requirements with teeth.

Because getting rid of annual testing is a dumb idea. I acknowledge (readily) that there are very real problems with today’s tests, accountability systems, teacher evaluations, NCLB waivers, and so on. And these problems are often most acute for those most affected by them–students, families, and teachers, rather than the policymakers that wrote the law and are now responsible for updating it.

But this particular reaction–ending statewide, comparable, annual testing–is an overreaction that creates more problems than it solves. It feeds into the false narrative that testing is only able to punish, rather than inform, support, and motivate. It makes it okay that we haven’t invested nearly enough in building educator capacity to support the students that tests identify as struggling, including significant commitments to overhauling both professional development and teacher preparation. It shies away from, rather than confronts, the hard truths that tests reveal about our education system–the disparate outcomes, and disparate expectations of what students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socio-economic conditions can learn.

Still, given the public beating standardized tests have taken over the last decade, and the negative narrative around testing that’s solidified as a result, it remains exceedingly important for those of us that still believe in annual, statewide standardized testing to articulate–again, and again, and again–why it matters. So if the problems above weren’t sufficient to sway you, here are the top five things we lose by giving up on annual testing:

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NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?

It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.

But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.” Continue reading