Forget about the Common Core State Standards, last year’s hottest educational topic. A potentially more disruptive movement is sweeping the country and needs more attention in this new year.
More than 20 states are adjusting to new legislative requirements that student test scores be part of the teacher evaluation process. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations championed this approach, as have many governors. Teacher unions continue to raise objections, but it is difficult to argue that teachers should not be measured, at least in part, on how well their students are doing.
Now three representatives of the new generation of reformers championing the rising emphasis on student achievement — a group that has been friendly to the teacher assessment reforms — have written a persuasive critique of the way the change is being made. They warn that its inflexibility might bring more harm than good.
The authors of “The Hangover: The Unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge” merit close attention from Washington-area parents and teachers because they have all been public school policymakers or managers in this region. Sara Mead, 36, is a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Andrew Rotherham, 43, a co-founder of the Bellwether Education Partners consulting group where Mead is a principal, was a Clinton White House staffer specializing in education and a member of the Virginia state school board. Rachael Brown, 31, is a former teacher who is a manager of teacher effectiveness for the D.C. public schools.
In their chapter of the new Harvard Education Press book “Teacher Quality 2.0,” the authors say that imposing school achievement measures on teacher assessment could harm promising developments in “technological innovation, blended learning and the growth of charter and portfolio models in many urban areas.” Requiring that teachers be rated using student test scores risks “becoming as much an impediment to progress as the old, inadequate systems they displaced,” they conclude.
Mead, Rotherham and Brown decry limp evaluation systems that rate nearly all teachers as satisfactory. But there has not been enough research yet to prove that assessing with test scores will improve instruction. The wave of change in teacher assessment laws “may simply be locking in the current state-of-the-art teacher evaluation knowledge” and make it difficult to adjust when schools learn what really works, they say.
They note that some of the most successful public charter schools rely much more on principals’ judgments than state test scores in evaluating teachers, and they argue that the new laws requiring the use of test scores could stymie them. Many educators teach subjects such as history, science, art and music that are not tied to state tests. New instructional systems emphasizing teamwork and blended learning probably will increase the number of teachers whose work cannot be evaluated in the ways legislatures require.
“Right now,” the authors say, “teacher evaluations are too often marketed as an educational wonder drug without a clear plan for how evaluation results translate into improved teaching or what system elements are necessary to foster effective teaching.”
Such caution is noteworthy coming from people not tied to the teacher unions that have been the most persistent critics of test-based assessments. Mead, Rotherham and Brown recommend more respect for innovations, perhaps by giving creative school leaders waivers from the laws.
Teacher evaluation systems are unlikely to become political campaign topics akin to Common Core. That is just as well. Let’s allow people who understand school dynamics, including principals, classroom teachers and these authors, to examine the most promising reforms and show us which have the best results.