The Peril of Teacher Evaluation Policy under ESSA

It’s official. Teacher evaluation policy in most states and districts is in trouble. Big trouble. After overwhelmingly passing the House this week, a similar outcome predicted in the Senate, and support from the White House, it looks very likely that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be reauthorized very, very soon. The new bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, strips all federal requirements on teacher quality issues.

The main theme of ESSA is state flexibility. This hasn’t always worked so well with school accountability. History suggests that states back away from accountability when they’re not forced into it by the feds. And there’s no reason to think it will be any different for teacher quality policy. Especially teacher evaluation.

Sure, as of today 43 states require that student growth and achievement be considered in teacher evaluations and 40 of those states have it written into state law (three states have teacher evaluation policy existing only in ESEA waivers, which will be eliminated). But many of these states have yet to produce a year’s worth of results on the new evaluation systems, let alone connecting those results to other personnel decisions. Only seven states tie evaluation ratings to compensation. Less than half of states have policies in place where teachers are eligible for dismissal based on evaluation ratings. Just nine states use evaluation to determine licensure.

Besides, while state law matters, it’s also vulnerable to the sway of powerful special interest groups. With no federal oversight and most states just dipping their toes into implementation, the teacher evaluation policy that many states and districts have been working hard on in the last five to eight years will be susceptible to attacks. In fact, many states are already in legal limbo over teacher evaluation systems. A New Mexico court recently paused the state from connecting its teacher evaluation system to rewards and consequences—a battle win for the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation who filed the lawsuit against the state department of education.

Will teachers stop being evaluated when ESSA passes? No. In places like the District of Columbia, Florida, Tennessee, and Delaware, teacher evaluation policies will likely hold strong. And those and other reform-minded states will still be able to take advantage of grant funding through the Teacher and School Leader Fund Grant which is enshrined into ESSA. But for the majority of states, we’re likely to see state teachers unions and other groups chomping at the bit to take up fights against performance-based teacher evaluation policies. New evaluation measures will likely strip or greatly decrease the influence of student growth and achievement.

What’s most concerning about the looming attack is that teacher evaluation is the centerpiece for many other teacher quality issues. How can states ensure equitable distribution of effective teachers if the system for evaluating teacher performance isn’t strong or accurate? How can teacher preparation programs be held accountable for outputs if the teachers aren’t evaluated with fidelity once they’re in the field? How can teachers’ instruction be improved if there is no system to determine what good teaching practice looks like?

There are more questions than answers for teacher quality policy in the great ESSA compromise.