Randi is Right

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The AFT's Randi Weingarten nailed it last week.

Commenting on the unveiling of the Obama administration's NCLB waiver plan, she told the New York Times: "You're seeing an extraordinary change of policy, from an accountability system focused on districts and schools, to accountability based on principal and teacher evalutions."

This is the fundamental shift in education policy — not the alleged executive branch overreach (or is it a giveaway to the states?), not the abandonment of AYP — that the waiver plan cements into place. To get out from under the overly ambitious goal of getting all children proficient by 2014, states will have to implement rational (we hope) systems for evaluating the performance of the individuals (rather than the institutions) who have the greatest impact on student learning.

Strange as it may seem to some of us who have lived in the NCLB world for almost a decade, there is no reason why the school has to be the unit of accountability in education reform. As Paul Peterson points out in his masterful Saving Schools, school-based accountability was simply seen as more practical than the other two alternatives — holding teachers or students accountable. But the evidence that teacher quality outweighs all other school-based effects on student learning has finally become too overwhelming to ignore.

Whether or not this shift ultimately brings about results depends on two key factors: are the teacher evaluation systems well-designed (in particular, do they make student learning growth a primary consideration in assessing teachers), and what states and districts do with whatever information the evaluation systems net them. It's entirely possible that the federal government is writing a blank check that education departments and district offices won't be able to cash. What's now unquestioned, however, is that teacher quality is seen as the prime lever for the improvement of public education.

Arthur McKee