Should the Federal Government Be Determining How States Evaluate Teachers?

Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, held another hearing this week on the potential reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since 2002 called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The subject of this week’s hearing was federal requirements for evaluating school teachers. While it is early yet to predict any sort of outcome for the NCLB deliberations, Lauren Camera of Education Week speculates: “Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements.”

Removing requirements for tying evaluation of teachers to students’ test scores would be a radical shift in federal policy. The Obama administration conditioned qualification for its competitive grant program Race to the Top on states’ basing evaluation of school teachers on their students’ standardized test scores.  And the Obama Department of Education’s waivers from the onerous punishments of NCLB have also been contingent upon states agreeing to connect teachers’ ratings to their students’ standardized test scores.

Describing Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate HELP Committee, Camera continues: “Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers.  The lack of language in the reauthorization requiring teacher evaluations will likely stop in its tracks the Obama administration’s efforts to push states to adopt evaluation systems based in part on student test scores and performance-based compensation systems, both of which were at the heart of U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waivers.”  Camera reports on testimony presented to the Senate HELP Committee by Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner, that evaluation of teachers should be collaborative and “not done to teachers and leaders.”

Coincidentally, the day after the Senate HELP’s hearing on evaluation of teachers, I attended a packed meeting here at home where a panel of teachers from my own school district’s elementary and middle schools and our high school spoke about how their teaching practice has been affected by standardized testing and the evaluation of teachers based on their students’ scores.  All of them were able to examine these relatively new experiences in the context of long careers that stretch before the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Natalie Wester was chosen as Ohio’s teacher of the year in 2010, but she told the crowd that she worried even as she received the award, because that year only 4 of her third grade students had passed the autumn practice exam leading up to the official state test. In the spring only 50 percent of her students achieved the “proficient” rating. What the state’s examination did not recognize and what no official rating will ever show is that every student in her class that year grew two or three performance levels. The test, like all the standardized assessments since the passage of NCLB, recognizes achievement only when children cross the passing benchmark. If a non-reader enters a third grade classroom in the fall, learns to read, and becomes a second-grade-level reader in that one year, the child still counts as a failure according to the assessment that credits success only when a child reads at grade level. Wester declared, “I fear that in a very real sense we are squashing dreams, confidence, and children’s belief in themselves through testing.”

Another teacher reported he is working this year with a small group of third graders whose reading test scores are so low the students are likely to fail the state mandated Third Grade Reading Guarantee test. Students who fail will be required to repeat third grade. This teacher says he watches his students “shut down” when they realize how far behind they are. “I see that spark of wanting to learn dying in my students. I feel we are abusing our students.”

A high school teacher of special education worried that some of her students are so far below the basic level at which the standardized test is constructed that the testing experience itself is emotionally defeating.  All of the teachers who spoke affirm the value of informal quizzes and check-ins with students—formative assessments—that provide the teachers with feedback to plan interventions, support students, readjust the lesson, and add extra challenge as the lesson is expanded.  Very often, according to all the speakers, standardized test scores come back a semester or a year after the test, long after a particular teacher can use the data to address challenges faced by the students who are no longer enrolled in their classes.

A teacher from a neighboring school district framed the evening by explaining the details of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, created as a requirement when Ohio applied for the federal Race to the Top competition and included as a requirement for the state to receive a federal waiver from some of the worst problems in NCLB. This system evaluates teachers in large part based on their students’ standardized test scores.  In the context of listening to a panel of professionally expert teachers speaking to their long experience working with children, it was almost baffling to try to follow the details of the plan by which Ohio’s teachers are rated “accomplished, skilled, developing or ineffective.” Teachers are spending hours filing reams of data about their teaching and their students. These reports along with formal observations of their classes count for 50 percent of their evaluation with another 50 percent from their students’ standardized test scores. A new revision of the Ohio Department of Education’s evaluation rubric will allow a school district to create alternative components for 15 percent of the overall rating and then award 42.5 percent on reports and observations and another 42.5 percent for students’ test scores.

As I listened to  the description of the burdensome evaluation system set up by the Ohio Department of Education, I know I was not the only person thinking about Natalie Wester’s students.  Each one of them gained at least two or three performance levels in her class, but only 50 percent of her children passed the state’s proficiency benchmark that year. Even if they have made substantial academic progress, children’s failures to reach a particular cut score affect not only them and their confidence and will to persist, but also shape the formal state evaluation scores of their teachers—even for Ohio’s teacher of the year.

NCLB Reauthorization Debate Focuses on Role of Testing, Ignores Expanding Opportunity

Test-and-punish, the strategy of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, has not been working. The goal of the law, drafted right after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 and signed into law the following January, was to close academic achievement gaps by race and family income. Even though the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been in operation for 13 years now and NCLB has utterly failed to close achievement gaps, Congress has never been able to agree on a reauthorization. Now our new Congress—both houses dominated by Republicans—has been talking about a reauthorization and has even been scheduling hearings.  In the past week advocacy groups have rushed to take sides on its central mandate: annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

However, because there is not another compelling educational vision to replace test-and-punish accountability, it looks as though a compromise reauthorization of ESEA may move forward, but that any new version will be unlikely to change the direction of federal policy in public education.

Last Sunday, in coordination with a speech planned by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to follow on Monday, a group of 19 civil rights and advocacy organizations issued a statement insisting that any new federal education law require annual standardized testing.  The statement demands that any ESEA reauthorization include, “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting the state’s college and career-ready standards…” These organizations assert that annual test scores reported by demographic groups have shone a bright light on the persistent achievement gaps.  They advocate for the retention of annual testing as a way to continue to hold public schools accountable for addressing the needs of all children.

Then on Monday, in a major policy address, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also insisted on the retention of annual testing.  Duncan has not threatened a veto by President Barack Obama but he has pretty much made the retention of annual standardized testing non-negotiable, despite that in the past he has criticized “too many tests that take up too much time.”  Alyson Klein reports for Education Week that “Duncan…. wants any ESEA rewrite to continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.”

On Tuesday, Senator Lamar Alexander, the new Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a discussion draft of a new ESEA. Senator Alexander advocates reducing the federal role in education and substituting what is called “grade span” testing for annual testing.  Under Alexander’s grade-span proposal, schools would continue to be held accountable through testing, but students would be tested only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Lindsey Layton reports in the Washington Post that Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP Committee, endorses Duncan’s insistence on annual testing:  “Murray said Monday she wants to keep the annual testing mandate but wants to eliminate the myriad other tests states and local school districts administer.”

The National Education Association has reiterated its support for grade-span testing (once in elementary, once in middle school, once in high school) and its reasons for rejecting No Child Left Behind’s mandate for annual standardized testing.  NEA’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, released a statement on Monday that explains: “We are pleased the Administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… Our focus is on providing equal opportunity to every child so that they may be prepared for college and career… In order to do this, we must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas… We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

In a surprise on Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers, which has historically opposed annual testing, joined with the Center on American Progress, whose education priorities generally mirror the policies of the Obama/Duncan Department of Education, to propose a compromise: retain annual standardized testing for diagnostic purposes but use grade-span testing to hold schools accountable: “We propose that in order to inform instruction, to provide parents and communities information about whether students are working at grade level or are struggling, and to allow teachers to diagnose and help their students, the federal requirement for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school should be maintained… However, we also believe it is critical to relieve the unintended yet detrimental pressure of high-stakes tests by basing federal accountability on a robust system of multiple measures.  While these systems should include assessment results, states should only be required to include tests taken once per grade span… in their school accountability systems.”

The debate about the long-overdue reauthorization of ESEA seems to have been reduced to a conversation about annual versus grade-span standardized testing.  Some pretty basic things are missing from this conversation.  Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap that is even greater than the racial achievement gaps.  A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession.  Children who live in racially and economically marginalized communities where schools are poorly funded by state legislatures are the victims of enormous opportunity gaps.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states with a regime of standardized tests and accompanying punishments for schools and school districts whose test scores do not rise quickly.  The punishments—prescribed by No Child Left Behind and also embedded the competitive programs such as Race to the Top initiated by the Obama administration— include blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding charters and privatization.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must instead be to invest in improving public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated.  The paucity of ideas being discussed in Congress and important advocacy groups about an alternative to No Child Left Behind’s “test-and-punish” strategy demonstrates that right now there is a lack of public will and a lack of political leadership to invest in addressing the opportunity gaps that cause achievement gaps.

Budget Sequester Relief Would Help Students Already Sequestered on Indian Reservations

It is not surprising that the educational impact of the federal budget cuts known as “sequestration” should most seriously affect American Indian children on the reservations.  After all, my dictionary defines sequestration as “seclusion, separation, setting apart, removal.”

Indian reservations are places where, over the past two centuries, our society has set apart and made invisible the indigenous people we defeated.  If you have visited northern Montana, where I grew up, you may have noticed the flag of the Blackfeet Nation flying next to the U.S. flag at the St. Mary’s visitor center at the east entrance to Glacier Park, but you have probably never heard of Rocky Boy, Fort Belknap, or Fort Peck.

It is therefore entirely predictable that in 2011, when Congress passed a budget-reduction plan that carved 5 percent of funding from all the federal departments, the cuts to education would most seriously hurt the schools serving already sequestered American Indian children, schools which, according to a recent article in Education Week, are likely to depend on Congress for as much as 80 percent of their  funding.  Federal Impact Aid is a program that supports schools in places where there is little private property to tax locally—the reservations and schools on military bases.

According to Education Week, “Perhaps no other single group of students has been as walloped by sequestration—the biggest cuts to federal education spending in history—as Native American children…  Seventy-six of the top 100 districts that rely most heavily on federal funding are districts that receive Impact Aid to help make up for tax revenue lost because of a nearby Indian reservation…  In addition, 90 percent of Native American students go to schools that get federal Title I funds….  The Title I program—a roughly $14.5 billion pot of money designed to help educate the nation’s poorest children—lost $727 million this school year because of sequestration.”  Also reduced have been the Title VII dollars that support programs in American Indian languages and cultures.

Because cuts to these programs are affecting some of America’s neediest children, there was a sense of relief last week among Washington, D.C. education advocates when Senator Patty Murray and Representative Paul Ryan finally agreed on a proposal for a budget compromise.  Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee on Education Funding declared, “Obviously, this isn’t the ideal situation we’d hoped for, but to be honest, it’s better than we could have expected.”

According to Alyson Klein of Education Week, “The plan doesn’t completely get rid of sequestration, which is slated to be in place for a decade.  The deal would just roll back most of the cuts for two years, giving lawmakers space to come up with a broader agreement down the road.”  The House has passed the Murray-Ryan plan, which sets aside $62 million for sequester relief—87 percent of the cuts to non-defense discretionary spending for 2014.  The Senate still must vote on the plan.