I saw this headline in my clips and did a double take, wondering if The Onion had begun mocking education policy: "Teachers would have to demonstrate ability to teach under bill headed to Utah Senate."
But no, it was a headline from the Utah Deseret News. Its irony wasn't lost on us but we wager most of the subscribers were left scratching their heads, not realizing that teachers don't have to demonstrate that they are effective teachers in order to keep their jobs. Even in states that have passed landmark laws within the last five years requiring that teachers' evaluations incorporate measures of student growth, virtually all teachers still continue to be rated effective.
The status quo on teacher evaluations has barely budged.
Given that Donald Trump's daily decisions tend to mop up all the press attention, it would have been easy to miss a new report from NCTQ, Running in Place: How New Teacher Evaluations Fail to Live Up to Promises. This report describes a rather remarkable yet unreported phenomenon in which 28 of the 30 states that now require teacher evaluations to incorporate significant evidence of student learning don't really do what these laws set out to accomplish. These new laws' regulations and guidelines, most of them probably written with substantive contributions from "stakeholder groups" interested in preserving the existing system, undercut the laws' intent.
In fact, in 16 states teachers who receive the lowest possible score on their ability to increase student learning, can still mathematically qualify for a rating of effective or higher. Another bunch of states chose not to weigh in but left it up to their districts to decide, with the results that there too we see little change in the status quo.
Running in Place highlights the danger of relying solely on legislative action to advance education reforms. It reveals how state education organizations need to become more centered around supporting positive change, even if it means disrupting cozy relationships with opponents of change. While we certainly should celebrate when a state legislature enacts reform-oriented laws, faithful implementation is crucial to the law's success in the real world.
Frankly, I fear the ship of teacher evaluation has not only sailed, but also sunk. Legislatures, hyper sensitive about shifts in political winds, will be more likely in 2017 to backpedal even further, given recent pushback on holding teachers accountable for student learning. After all, if teacher evaluation laws don't change the status quo, why bother expending political capital on them?
However, not all hope is lost. We know that states can take powerful action because two states have done so successfully. Indiana and Kentucky have clear policies that require teachers to meet specific goals on student learning in order to be rated effective. And New Mexico is implementing a system that sorts teachers into meaningfully different categories in spite of what the laws technically allows.
States should prevent teachers from earning an effective rating if they are ineffective at increasing student learning. Teacher evaluation must evolve from an exercise of compliance to a process that identifies an individual teacher's strengths and weaknesses in an effort to support continual development. ESSA provides states with a prime opportunity to carefully consider the role of student growth in their teacher evaluation systems.
A vital lesson from this study is how difficult it is to make real change in the education system that benefits students. Even if one level agrees to an improvement, other levels can thwart it. As exhausting as the legislative process may be, the regulatory process is just as important if not more important.
By working at all levels we can take stories about states ignoring student achievement in teacher ratings and relegate them to the realm of satire where they belong.