Author Archives: Kaitlin Pennington and Bonnie O'Keefe

Diving Deeper into Michigan Data in Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Hearing Last Night

During her confirmation hearing last night, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, fielded questions from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee. As we predicted, several committee members asked DeVos about her involvement in education policy and politics in her home state of Michigan and in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). In particular, Senator Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) used Michigan and DPS data to press DeVos on accountability, charter school oversight, and school improvement.

In many cases, however, the questions and answers both misrepresented or oversimplified the data. To be fair, the time constraints and pressure of a confirmation hearing make it difficult to fully dig into the nuance of an entire state’s complex education history. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners accurately evaluate DeVos, we are releasing a fact-base about the education policy landscape in Michigan after the Inauguration. But until then, here are explanations for a few Michigan data points mentioned in last night’s hearing (note: all speakers’ talking points have been paraphrased for clarity): Continue reading

What is the Purpose of Teacher Evaluation Today? A Conversation Between Bellwether and The Fordham Institute

BW picTeacher evaluation was one of President Obama’s signature policies, and a controversial element of education reform during his tenure. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which does not require states and districts to implement performance-based teacher evaluations like No Child Left Behind waivers did, teacher evaluation policy has largely fallen out of the public narrative. But that does not mean states or districts know how they are going to proceed with teacher evaluation policy — in fact, its future remains unclear in this new era of lessened federal oversight.

In December 2016, Bellwether Education Partners and The Thomas B. Fordham Institute independently released two reports centered on teacher evaluation and its consequences. Bellwether’s report summarizes the teacher evaluation policy landscape and points out potential risks for teacher evaluation in the wake of the passage of ESSA. The Fordham Institute’s report studies 25 districts to determine if those districts can terminate veteran teachers once evaluation systems have deemed them ineffective.

fordham picBoth reports offer a glimpse into ongoing challenges and opportunities with teacher evaluation reform, but they have very different analyses. To understand our different approaches and the places where we might overlap on teacher evaluation policy, Bellwether and Fordham hosted an email conversation between the report authors. Below is a transcript of the exchange between Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead and Fordham’s Victoria McDougald and David Griffith.

Fordham’s report emphasized dismissing ineffective veteran teachers and Bellwether’s report highlighted how the field has switched the focus of teacher evaluation to professional development. Are these aims incompatible? Understanding the core purpose of teacher evaluation systems is especially important as states and districts consider making changes in the ESSA era. Each exchange below ends with a question for the other organization’s authors to respond to. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead: When we wrote our report, we grappled with what policymakers, teachers, and the public see as teacher evaluation’s purpose or “theory of action.” From the onset of reforms, there was inconsistent messaging. Some said teacher evaluation would be used primarily to inform employment decisions. Others said the systems would inform teachers’ professional development. Over time, many said the systems would do both. The inconsistent messaging about the purpose of teacher evaluation enabled opponents to define the systems as primarily punitive measures targeting teachers.

This led advocates to lose hold of the teacher evaluation narrative. Although very few teachers are rated ineffective and – as you write about in your report – even fewer actually lose their jobs because of poor evaluation ratings, many teachers currently view performance-based teacher evaluation systems as mechanisms to harm them.

But focusing narrowly on ineffective teachers may be the wrong emphasis. We believe that teacher evaluation is important because these systems can be used to define common expectations for effective teaching practice, facilitate data-driven conversations about instruction, and reward effective teaching in order to retain the most-skilled teachers. In the past several years, many states have used the systems to do this – in fact the most differentiation of teacher practice is happening at the high end of the spectrum between “effective” and “highly effective” teachers.

So while it is troubling that the systems have not exited poor performing teachers from the profession like many early teacher evaluation advocates hoped they would, the reformed systems have made progress over the binary systems they replaced. Yet the focus on firing teachers continues to dominate the public narrative.

Now because the Every Student Succeeds Act allows for more changes to teacher evaluation, many states are trying to rid their systems from connection to the “firing bad teachers” narrative. They are doing so by making it even harder to objectively determine ineffective teaching (and exit teachers because of it) by reducing or eliminating the main quantitative data point in many teacher evaluation systems – student achievement and growth data.  The loss of this objective data to balance subjective measures like classroom observations and student and parent surveys negatively impacts the reliability of the systems. Moreover it reinforces a troubling age-old message, that great teaching is determined by teacher input and is divorced from student output. This has implications for the future of the teaching profession and the human capital talent interested in joining a profession that is evaluated on these metrics.

When you wrote your report, did you consider teacher evaluation’s theory of action? Do you think performance-based teacher evaluations will survive in the ESSA era if the narrative around them continues to focus on firing ineffective teachers?

Fordham’s Victoria McDougald: While teacher evaluation and dismissal are obviously closely intertwined, our report – Undue Process: Why Bad Teachers in Twenty-Five Diverse Districts Rarely Get Fired – shines light on the latter, equally important yet far less-studied issue. In it, we ask: after nearly a decade of teacher evaluation reform, is it any easier to exit an ineffective veteran teacher from the classroom? Dismissal data are notoriously difficult to come by, but as recently as 2013, just 0.2 percent of tenured teachers in a typical state were dismissed for poor performance.

After combing through collective bargaining agreements, employee handbooks, and state laws, our study yielded bleak findings. Overall, we found that dismissing underperforming teachers remains far too hard (in all twenty-five diverse districts included in our study, significant barriers remain in place to doing so).

Should the conversation around teacher evaluation focus exclusively on firing ineffective teachers? Certainly not. Continue reading

Third Presidential Debate Recap: The American Electorate is Left Guessing on K-12 Education Policy

Clinton_and_Trump_cartoon_illustration

Illustration by VectorOpenStock.com

The third and final presidential debate is over. Viewers and the media agree that while the last square-off between Clinton and Trump had its expected off-topic and personal exchanges, it was the most substantive of the three debates. Yet, once again, the candidates did not debate education policy.

To her credit, Clinton did mention education. Like in the past debates, the topic came up when she touted her economic plan. “I feel strongly we have to have an education system that starts with preschool and goes through college,” she said. “That’s why I want more technical education in high schools and community colleges, real apprenticeships to prepare people for the real jobs of the future.”

Clinton took a page from her running mate Tim Kaine’s book when mentioning career and technical education, a policy area near and dear to his heart (though he did not mention it during the vice presidential debate). She then went on to mention her plan of making college debt free for families earning less than $125,000 — a plan she worked on with Bernie Sanders, and one of the education topics she often mentions during public speaking events.

But those hoping to hear Clinton talk about her plans for students in elementary and middle school were left disappointed. Both Clinton and Trump finished the debate cycle with negligible mentions of K-12 policy.

That leaves the education community guessing at what K-12 policy might look like under Clinton or Trump. If the candidates themselves or their running mates won’t talk about the issue, the next best place to look is their advisers and surrogates. Continue reading

Recap of Second Presidential Debate: Light on Education; Heavy on Character

Last night’s second presidential debate was more about the character of the two candidates than it was about the issues they would attempt to solve in office. After a weekend filled with coverage of Trump’s lewd comments about women, which caused several prominent establishment Republicans to drop support for the candidate, it’s not overly surprising the debate got personal, fast.

The few policy-focused questions asked of the candidates covered health care, taxes, national security, and climate change. Moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper didn’t ask any specific questions related to education nor did members of the audience, who were tasked with asking questions in the town-hall style debate. (For a list of questions Bellwether team members hoped would be asked, click here.)

Tweets from the education community during the debate bemoaned the lack of education coverage:

Andre Perry

sara and josh

In a debate largely focused on character, Clinton took several opportunities to question Trump and his ability to set a good example for children: “You know, children listen to what is being said […] And there’s a lot of fear — in fact, teachers and parents are calling it the Trump effect. Bullying is up. A lot of people are feeling, you know, uneasy. A lot of kids are expressing their concerns.”

Clinton was likely referring to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center blaming the Trump campaign for producing fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. While it’s too early to spot signs of a statistical uptick in bullying in schools due to Trump’s rhetoric, education circles and blogs throughout the campaign have certainly insinuated it. My colleague, Allison Crean Davis, wrote a comprehensive post for The 74 on how to talk to students about character when Trump keeps rewriting the rules for socially acceptable behavior.

The third and final presidential debate takes place Wednesday October 19 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This will be the last chance for voters to hear how the candidates plan to improve our nation’s schools.

Bellwether’s Predictions for the Town-Hall Presidential Debate

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

The issue of education policy was absent in the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate. This Sunday, Clinton and Trump face off again in their second debate. But this time, the format is town-hall style, meaning half of the questions will come from undecided voters in the audience.

Town hall debates are known for exposing candidates’ ability to interact with voters and show empathy toward issues affecting their daily lives. Given this, might education finally get its spotlight? We here at Bellwether sure hope so.

I asked my Bellwether team members what education questions they would ask Clinton and Trump if they could be in the audience on Sunday night. Here’s what my colleagues came up with: Continue reading