Obama’s Plan To Link Teacher Evaluation to Student Achievement Draws Strong Criticism from all Sides

At the end of July, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, announced that grants worth $4.35 billion would be made available to states to further education change. Called the Race to the Top Fund, it is the largest-ever single federal investment in school reform.

As a condition of funding, the states are required to address four core reforms to increase student achievement and narrow achievement gaps. They are: common, internationally benchmarked standards and assessments; effective teachers and principals; data to inform decisions; and turnarounds of the lowest-performing schools.

The most controversial aspect is using student test results to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and principals and to determine compensation and promotions, tenure and removal. Duncan stated that linking teacher and student test data is “absolutely fundamental—it’s a building block”.

The proposal has generated widespread criticism from a wide range of academics and former education officials. They provide a very compelling case that the proposal is unsupported by research and will likely have significant unintended consequences for student learning.

Some of the comments on the proposal follow.

Helen Ladd, Professor of Public Policy at Duke University and co-author of When Schools Compete, submitted to the US Department of Education that:

The main problem with the heavy focus of the proposed test-based approach is that it ratchets up the pernicious narrow test- based approach to education represented by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The approach is narrow in part because the requirement that all students be tested every year means that students can be tested in only a limited number of subjects.

The result is a heavy emphasis on the basic skills of math and reading, to the detriment of other skills and orientations that young people need to become effective participants in the global society.

Further, the emphasis on test results for individual teachers will exacerbate the well-documented incentives for teachers to focus on narrow test taking skills and drilling. It is time to move beyond this misplaced emphasis on test scores in a few subjects to return to the broader goals of education that have been such an important part of our history.

One theory of action seems to be that holding teachers more accountable for the gains in their students’ test scores will induce them to become better teachers. At this point, I am not aware of any credible evidence in support of that proposition.

Indirect evidence from schools’ experiences with the test based pressures of NCLB or its state level precursors suggests that any positive effects are likely to be small at best…. The best recent evidence on the achievement effects of NCLB is by Tom Dee and Brian Jacob. Using NAEP data, they conclude that the federal legislation appears to have increased student achievement in fourth grade math, but not in fourth grade reading, or 8th grade math or reading. Such findings, which are fully consistent with other research, provide little or no support for the view that test based incentives for individual teachers will lead to significant gains in student achievement, especially at levels beyond the most basic that are the easiest to measure with standardized tests.

A second possible theory of action is that the linking of students’ scores to their teachers will improve student outcomes by providing the information necessary to make it easier for administrators to dismiss low performing teachers…. My own recent overview of the research on teacher effects highlights the tremendous difficulties that arise in using student test scores in a fair way to evaluate teachers. Simple approaches that focus on whether a teacher’s students in one year perform at higher levels than her students in the previous year are clearly inappropriate because of the changing mix of students from year to year.

[The] “value-added” approach is fraught with difficulties. Even the most sophisticated approaches typically cannot distinguish the contribution of teachers from the classroom context, and they generate estimates of a teacher’s quality that jump around from one year to the next, largely because of the small sample sizes for individual teachers.

For both teachers and principals, it is neither fair nor constructive to try to hold them accountable for factors over which they have little control, using statistical measures that are based on a narrow range of outcomes, and that are subject to large amounts of random variability.

A submission to the US Education Department by researchers at the Economic Policy Institute states:

…it is extremely difficult to isolate a teacher’s own contribution toward student performance on that test. Countless factors determine student achievement: families, schools, communities, peers, teachers, and the students themselves. Statisticians and economists have devised sophisticated methods for isolating “teacher effects” from forces outside their control, but these methods are complex, imprecise, and far from transparent. Because outside factors play such a large role in student progress, “teacher effects” are only a crude estimate of a teacher’s true effectiveness. Not surprisingly, they are highly unstable from year to year

There is strong evidence that “teacher effects” do not persist from grade to grade. That is, students of teachers who generate higher-than-average scores do not appear to be any better off in later grades. Thus, it is not clear that rewarding teachers for short-run test outcomes will be consistent with long-run academic success.

The research on actual outcome-based teacher evaluation policies is still very slim, and few have found meaningful effects on student achievement.

Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George Bush Snr, wrote in the Huffington Post recently:

So, what is the Obama administration now doing? Its $4.3 Billion “Race to the Top” fund will supposedly promote “innovation.” But this money will be used to promote privatization of public education and insist that states use these same pathetic tests to decide which teachers are doing a good job. With the lure of all that money hanging out there to the states, the administration is requiring that they remove all restrictions on the number of privately-managed charter schools that receive public dollars and that they use test results to evaluate teachers.

This is not change that teachers can believe in. These are exactly the same reforms that President George W. Bush and his Secretary Margaret Spellings would have promoted if they had had a sympathetic Congress. They too wanted more charter schools, more merit pay, more testing, and more “accountability” for teachers based on those same low-level tests. But Congress would never have allowed them to do it.

Now that President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have become the standard-bearer for the privatization and testing agenda, we hear nothing more about ditching NCLB, except perhaps changing its name. The fundamental features of NCLB remain intact regardless of what they call it.

The real winners here are the edu-entrepreneurs who are running President Obama’s so-called “Race to the Top” fund and distributing the billions to other edu-entrepreneurs, who will manage the thousands of new charter schools and make mega-bucks selling test-prep programs to the schools.

Susan Neumann, former Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Jnr, submitted to the US Department of Education that:

I strongly object to differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance. While it is clear that we need to promote quality teaching, these guidelines may have serious unintended consequences. There are several key issues that are extremely problematic:

To date, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that ‘value added’ models or multiple rating systems provide valid and reliable information on ‘quality teaching.’ Currently, we simply do not have models of ‘rigorous and transparent procedures’ that could accurately link gains with quality teaching. Without accurate, valid and reliable mechanisms, we run the risk of losing an extraordinary number of new teachers who might be or become excellent teachers.

It will also almost guarantee a troubling trend in our schools today: a focus on reading and math with little attention to content instruction. Two evaluations, Early Reading First, and Reading First, have shown that a narrow focus on reading without rich content learning in science, geography, history, art, will not significantly enhance children’s achievement.

Tying decisions about teacher quality to performance could provide a disincentive to working in hard to staff schools. Further, it might exacerbate the already troubling efforts to maintain staff in these schools. Those who might plan to enter the teaching profession temporarily might be more inclined toward these schools; while those who see teaching as their profession would move to less difficult to teach schools. These trends could place more of our disadvantaged children at risk of poor or inexperienced teaching than ever before.

These guidelines, to date, seem like a grand and very expensive experiment, with little research or experiential evidence to suggest that it will work. Having experienced the last eight years in attempting to improve quality teaching without evidence, we need to support innovation and research before resorting to these new federal efforts.

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