Teacher Evaluation After ESSA: A Conversation With NCTQ’s Sandi Jacobs

Did states and districts move on teacher evaluation policy because of readiness or was movement a response to federal pressure? What will come of teacher evaluation now that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is law and federal pressure is gone? Specifically, which components of teacher evaluation may be up for debate? What should state policymakers be thinking about this legislative session when it comes to teacher evaluation? 

As part of our forthcoming work on teacher evaluation, Bellwether convened policy influencers, state and district leaders, and researchers to discuss these and other current issues, questions, and opportunities with teacher evaluation policies. Sandi Jacobs, Senior Vice President of State and District Policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), attended our convening. The below transcript is an e-mail exchange between Jacobs and Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington that transpired after the meeting between late January and mid-February. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Staff pictures for Bellwether Education, in Washington, DC, 10-27-2015. Photo by Toby Jorrin.

Staff pictures for Bellwether Education, in Washington, DC. Photo by Toby Jorrin.

Kaitlin Pennington: At the end of last year, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was reauthorized. The new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) strips all federal requirements on teacher quality issues. When it comes to teacher policy, it’s hard to say how states may react to new flexibility or how quickly for that matter. However, shortly before ESSA passed, I predicted that under the new law, new teacher evaluation policy in states and districts would be especially vulnerable to attack. Then, barely one week after reauthorization, leaders in New York and Oklahoma altered the teacher evaluation systems in their respective states.

It’s no coincidence that both New York and Oklahoma quickly pulled back on using student achievement in teacher evaluation. If I was a betting person, I’d place money on the fact that there are likely several states lining up behind New York and Oklahoma to do the same thing. It’s not that I think teacher evaluation as we’ve known it for the last five to eight years will be a thing of the past, but I doubt student achievement will be a component—and definitely not a significant component—in the majority of states and districts due to the lack of federal oversight in ESSA.

NCTQ is known for all things teacher policy, and your most recent State of the States provides a comprehensive look at how states are evaluating teachers. So what do you think? What’s going to happen to teacher evaluation policy post-ESSA?

Sjacobs_HeadshotSandi Jacobs: I’m just not sure that the reauthorization of ESSA is going to have much impact on states’ teacher evaluation policies. There is a perception that ESSA has done away with requirements for teacher evaluation that were in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and that is just not the case.  No version of ESEA has included a set of mandates around teacher evaluation.

Of course it is true that there was were some serious federal carrots and sticks around teacher evaluation, coming first with Race to the Top (RTT) and then with the ESEA waivers. And especially through the waivers, the feds certainly “encouraged” some states to move farther and faster on teacher evaluation than they really wanted or were ready to do. But it just isn’t my sense that that is the case for most states.

In our most recent scan in late 2015, we found just five states (California, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska and Vermont) that had no formal state policy requiring that teacher evaluations take objective measures of student achievement into account in evaluating teacher effectiveness. And only three states – Alabama, New Hampshire and Texas – had evaluation policies that existed only in their waiver requests. It was far from a secret that there were states doing nothing on teacher evaluation; Texas was far from quiet about it. Yet most states kept moving.

It is a certainty that states are going to continue to fine-tune their teacher evaluation requirements.  (Appendix B of our State of the States report attempts to capture the considerable amount of changes states have made just to the weight of student growth measures over the last five years; within all those changes we only found three states that no longer appeared to require it as a significant factor.) What remains to be seen is whether there will be wholesale backpedaling.

I’m cautiously optimistic. There will certainly be political pressure to roll back requirements in some states. The simultaneous implementation of new college- and career-readiness assessments and new teacher evaluation systems has been a significant challenge, one that has unfortunately amplified the pushback to each issue individually. But while much work remains on implementation, the policy landscape around teacher evaluation is completely transformed in this country, and that’s not going to be easy to undo.

And one more note – a teacher evaluation bill is currently moving in the Alabama legislature, one of the eight states that currently does not require student achievement to be part of teacher evaluations.

Kaitlin Pennington: I hear what you’re saying, but I’d like to push on a couple of things. Wouldn’t you agree that some – and I might even say the majority – of policy and political wins happen because of momentum? Creating momentum around reform was probably one of the more brilliant results of Race to the Top and ESEA waivers. As I’m sure you saw, a recent Race to the Top study showed that states that didn’t even apply for the money still moved in a more “reformy” direction during the RTT competition. Even though NCLB didn’t have requirements for teacher evaluation, the talk of the town in states and districts for the last several years has been around mandates for teacher evaluation (and other policies as stipulated in RTT and waivers) in order to be relieved from NCLB’s restrictions or to win large sums of grant money. The absence of teacher evaluation mandates in ESSA will energize naysayers to swing the momentum around accountability-driven teacher evaluation policies in the opposite direction.

The real sticking point here is the use of student achievement in teacher evaluation systems. To your point, I don’t think there will be wholesale backpedaling on teacher evaluation as a concept. There always was, and always will be, some form of “evaluation”. But the first thing on the chopping block any time changes to teacher evaluation are discussed is the use of student achievement and growth. We need not forget that when Seattle teachers went on strike last fall over compensation and workload, the Seattle Education Association worked in a deal eliminating the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation. And it was just announced last week that Colorado senators put forth a bill proposal for this legislative session that would eliminate the use of student growth in teacher evaluation.

The attack on including student growth in teacher evaluation is understandable. Measures are still imperfect. But even in places that have been working at this longest, like Colorado, full implementation has not had time to set in so that lessons can be learned from how the evaluation system is playing out in practice. Therefore, the hard work of perfecting teacher evaluation systems so that they accurately reflect teachers’ ability to lead students to academic achievement may never happen if states pull back before the systems are realized. 

What are your thoughts specifically around what may happen to the use of student achievement as part teacher evaluation policy? Do you think states like New York, Oklahoma, and Colorado will be outliers? Do you have advice for state policymakers as this legislative session kicks off?

Sandi Jacobs: I agree with you that the landscape change in teacher evaluation had a lot to do with political momentum. But I am of the glass-half-full opinion that this momentum had much to do with state readiness to move on this particular hot potato and less to do with the glass-half-empty assessment that this movement was a response to federal pressure, both positive and negative. In our State of the States report from last fall, we mapped the timeline and found about a third of the states adopted new legislation and regulations in the interim between Race to the Top and the waivers.

The underlying reason for this momentum was the recognition that teacher evaluation systems were fundamentally broken. The Widget Effect showed that systems throughout the country were neither designed nor implemented to help teachers grow, develop, and improve, whether their performance was deficient, average, or exceptional. This finding was reflected in the perceptions of educators: two-thirds of teachers reported traditional evaluations didn’t reflect what they did in the classroom.

To start fixing this broken system, states looked to incorporate better, more meaningful measures in teacher evaluations: objective evidence of student learning was one important feature of improved systems and better observation rubrics focused on effective instruction was another. Both are incredibly important. What we’re learning from early implementers is that for a whole lot of reasons, it is really hard to get real differentiation among observation scores. It is still too easy for principals to say every lesson they see is just fine. This makes the need for the objective evidence all the more important.

Regardless of how full or empty you see the glass when it comes to unpacking the motivation behind the flurry of state activity around teacher evaluations in recent years, it is almost impossible to separate the pushback against using tests in teacher evaluation from the larger anti-testing movement. In New York, for example, the teachers union worked hard —and seemingly succeeded— to conflate the two.

But I’m still optimistic. It is very hard to build trust in new systems until teachers experience them. In states like Tennessee with a few years under their belt, teachers report increasing satisfaction with the system, most importantly that it is helping improve their practice and increase student achievement.

My advice to state policymakers is to listen carefully to the criticism, and my advice to the broader education policy community is to be cautious in labeling changes as backpedaling or abandonment. There are valid complaints that need to be addressed. Teachers being evaluated on test scores for students they don’t teach is a valid complaint (and something that most states wisely either never did or have stopped doing). Weights may need to be adjusted, particularly if additional valid measures like student surveys come into play.

It is probably wise for people involved in this work to be wary that course correcting could be an early warning of an about-face in direction. But as states and districts get deeper into the honest work of implementation, there are reasonable shifts that states may take in order to keep the momentum going while at the same time building trust and buy-in for evaluations. After all, most everyone agrees that the traditional systems —characterized by a lack of frequency and objective measures including student growth— did no favors for teachers or students. Where state policymakers suggest reverting back to those systems, as we are seeing in a few places like Colorado, this can only be viewed as a short-sighted reaction that has the potential to compromise the broader vision to build an evaluation system with a lot of promise to deliver positive results.