Is doing less harm enough for Education Secretary Duncan?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks about education on, July 7, 2014, at the White House in Washington.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said today via a blog post that he has decided to allow most states to apply for permission from the Education Department to push back to 2015-16 a requirement that they use student standardized test scores in teacher’s evaluations. This marked a step beyond flexibility Duncan offered last year, when he said states could seek flexibility from making personnel decisions based on teacher evaluations linked to student standardized test scores.

Why is he doing this? Because, he said, teachers have persuaded the department that it is unfair to rate teachers on the scores of new Common Core State Standards tests at a time when teachers are still learning how to teach to the standards. Duncan’s department has implemented reform policies that have led to most states agreeing to link educator evaluations to student standardized test scores, a practice that many assessment experts say is unfair.

Over the last several years there has been increasing opposition to Duncan’s approach on teacher evaluation and other issues. This summer, the nation’s largest labor union, the National Education Association, called for Duncan’s resignation, and the second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, said Duncan should be put on an improvement plan. After that, Duncan wrote a blog post saying that teachers were his “top advisers.”

So how significant is today’s move by Duncan? Here’s one answer to that question from Barnett Berry,  founder, partner and chief executive officer at the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit organization that helps teachers transform their profession.

By Barnett Berry

Earlier today Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a slight—yet potentially significant—shift in his stance on teacher evaluation. Duncan extended an offer of flexibility to states, a one-year delay in implementing evaluation systems that would tie teacher performance to test results.

This is a good thing. And it could be the beginning of a great thing.

Admittedly, it has taken Duncan far too long to heed educators’ concerns about new evaluation systems reliant on tests not yet aligned with new college- and career-ready standards. Yes, teachers need more time to fine-tune their instruction in line with the new standards. Yes, any test involved in holding a teacher accountable must be fair, reliable, accurate, and well-aligned with the standards it measures. And yes, when expert teachers raise sound objections to policies governing teaching and learning, decision makers have a responsibility to take them seriously.

But despite the dawdling, I am glad that Duncan is acknowledging the need for accountability systems to be reasonable, accurate, and responsible. And that he has now vowed a continued commitment to working in concert with educators to approach this policy goal sensibly.

So, what next? How can his administration ensure that evaluation systems actually fulfill their intended role of improving teacher effectiveness? Here are some teacher evaluation facts (based on researchers’ findings) and relevant next steps for the Duncan administration:

Fact: The “value-added” statistical techniques that are part of many states’ systems to assess teachers’ effectiveness in improving student achievement are extremely unstable.

 Next step: The federal government could spread best practices for evaluation found in top-performing nations like Singapore where trained observers use professional judgment—not rigid, formulaic statistical modes—in assessing how teachers support the whole child and spread their teaching expertise.

Fact: Teachers rarely receive usable and timely feedback from the value-added data — based on student standardized test scores — that are used to judge them.

Next Step: Second, the U.S. Department of Education could help to ensure that evaluation systems yield useful information by encouraging states to implement serious peer review systems that give teachers information and support that help them improve throughout the school year. A number of school districts in the U.S.—including Montgomery County (MD) as well as Poway Unified and San Unified school districts (CA)—have implemented such systems effectively.

Fact: Teachers do not have access to high-quality professional development found in top-performing nations— and they have very little time needed to work with their colleagues in improving teaching and learning.

Next step: The USDOE should maximize its new Teach to Lead initiative—inviting accomplished teachers to create and lead professional learning systems that spread expertise to improve student outcomes. (Example: Check out some of teacherpreneur Ali Wright’s ideas for her home state of Kentucky.) Evaluation systems can contribute to teaching quality—but they are useless if teachers don’t have access to time and high-quality opportunities to learn and improve throughout their careers.

As a result of today’s announcement, Duncan’s administration will certainly do less harm than might otherwise be the case. But will they do what’s right to improve teaching effectiveness for the long haul? That much remains to be seen.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · August 21, 2014

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