The Effectiveness Conundrum

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Editorial by Kate Walsh

Adding to the growing list of organizations that have weighed in with NCLB reauthorization proposals, we now have the granddaddy of them all, the report of the Commission on No Child Left Behind. Both ends of the political spectrum are finding plenty to jump on in the Commission's recent report. Most groups chose more delicate language to describe their objections than did Reg Weaver, who called its proposals "crap." The Fordham tag team of Petrilli and Finn renamed it "No Idea Left Behind," for the obvious reason that they felt it to be an overreach. Most Washington insiders are withholding judgment.

The report is remarkably substantive, fleshing out many specifics about how to improve NCLB. Far better that than the anticipated pablum--and certainly not the call to scrap the whole thing that some had wished for--it gives Congress something concrete to consider.

In particular, the Commission joins a chorus of organizations happy to dump on the current law's "Highly Qualified Teacher" (HQT) provision--which from the start has been weighed down with its unfortunate nomenclature. Everyone knows that the credentials needed to become HQT could only make a teacher "qualified" at best. The choice of the word "highly" (undoubtedly thrown in at a moment of Congressional bravado) played right into the hands of NCLB critics. How many times in the past five years have we heard someone proclaim, "It's not the qualifications of a teacher that matter--by George, we need to measure effectiveness!" (Accompanied by lots of head-nodding.)

The notion that someone should be highly effective is a certain crowd-pleaser, but what does it mean?

The Commission proposes an HQET ("Highly Qualified and Effective Teacher") formula that would require all teachers to perform above the 25th percentile in effectiveness compared to their peers statewide. Most of a teacher's effectiveness would be determined by student test scores averaged over a number of years but principal and/or peer evaluation would also play a role. If in eight years a teacher can't move past the 25th percentile with the help of a lot of professional development, he or she would be barred from teaching in a Title I school. (Meaning, incidentally, that the teacher would no longer get to teach poor kids--we're not quite sure whether this constitutes a carrot or a stick.)

Eight years is a long time, especially since it would be more like 10 or 12 while states built the system capacity to begin measuring teacher effectiveness. That being said, it's not hard to imagine the Commission's thinking--namely, that an eight-year dismissal process would be an improvement over the non-existent one now in place.

Without thinking very hard, it is possible to come up with one hundred and one reasons why the Commission's proposal is problematic through and through. In order for this to have a chance at working as intended, careful consideration has to be given to addressing these inherent problems. Who is to say that the 25th percentile is the right cutoff and not the 38th or the 16th? Shouldn't we first define what it means to be effective and apply that standard to all teachers regardless of what percentile they fall under? How can we expect states to enact a provision like this when it took many of them six years to figure out how to mandate a subject matter test for new elementary teachers? Won't differences in state standards and assessments mean that a teacher labeled as ineffective (or even fired) in one state would be entirely safe in another state? What about teachers whose grade-level or subject areas are not tested? Should there be differences in how you evaluate teacher effectiveness in different subjects, given that math teachers have much more control over outcomes than do reading teachers? Those are just a few of the problems that come to mind.

But perhaps the most important question to ask is: can we afford to do nothing? If the federal government is not prepared to enact such draconian measures, then what role should it play, if any? If they decide that no action is appropriate, it seems unlikely that states will overcome the political obstacles necessary to force this issue. The likelihood is that we will once again be left with the status quo.

This shouldn't be a case of deciding which alternative is worse--taking the chance that some teachers who do not deserve to will lose their jobs or continuing to tolerate high numbers of ineffective teachers. Some may be resigned to those two extremes, and to many on either side of the issue, their choice is clear. We don't think it should come down to that.