All or Nothing on Teacher Accountability

Someday, when they write the history of the education-reform movement, future scholars will tug their chins in puzzlement as they ponder today’s obsession with high-stakes teacher evaluations. But not for all the usual reasons that people raise concerns: the worry about whether we’ve got good measures of teacher performance, especially for instructors in subjects other than reading and math; the likelihood that tying achievement to evaluations will spur teaching to the test in ways that warp instruction and curriculum; the futility of trying to “principal-proof” our schools by forcing formulaic, one-size-fits-all evaluation models upon all K–12 campuses; the terrible timing of introducing new evaluation systems at the same time that educators are working to implement the Common Core.

No, future historians are far likelier to wonder about the motivation behind the evaluation obsession. Was this a policy designed to identify, and remove, America’s least effective teachers? Or was it a kinder-and-gentler effort to provide critical feedback to instructors so they could improve their craft?

If the latter, as some reformers now claim, historians will wonder why we were so insistent on attaching high stakes to these evaluations—determined to “make human-resource decisions” based on the results, as the parlance goes.

And if the former, historians will ask: What the heck were they thinking? Did they really believe that teacher evaluations alone would be enough to push bad instructors out of the classroom?


Consider, for instance, the Obama Administration’s decision to place three states on “high risk status” because they have fallen behind on their promises to implement statewide teacher-evaluation systems (a condition—of dubious legality—of their ESEA waivers). One of those states—Washington—has fallen behind because its legislature hasn’t passed a bill enabling such an evaluation system.

Reformers in Washington State are gleeful, believing that the Administration’s actions may finally push their lawmakers to act. But then what? Even if the Evergreen State develops a well-designed system, will principals there be willing to give low marks to ineffective teachers? And will school leaders be able to push those instructors out of the classroom?

Doubtful. Washington’s teacher-tenure protections will remain in place, as will collective bargaining agreements, both of which guarantee extensive “due process” rights. And regardless of Arne Duncan’s exhortations, there’s no way that labor-friendly Washington is going to make it significantly easier to fire bad teachers (at least those who have already earned tenure).

Here’s a prediction: Whatever Olympia policymakers come up with, most teachers will continue to receive positive ratings and nearly all will cling to their jobs. Why? Why not. If you’re a school principal, why give a teacher a bad rating if you know you still can’t remove her from the classroom? All you’ve done is create an enemy—or set yourself up for a lawsuit. Smart principals know better and will do what they’ve always done, which is find a way to play the “dance of the lemons,” sending their bad teachers to another school.

Schools are hardly the only place this happens. Arne Duncan might take a look at the ratings for his own Department of Education employees. I bet he’ll find very few negative reviews—because federal employees more or less enjoy lifelong tenure from day one. Managers learn that negative ratings are futile, indeed hurtful of morale and esprit, so they don’t give them. Yet nobody thinks all 5,000 Department of Education employees are hitting it out of the park.

The lesson is this: When it comes to high-stakes evaluations, it’s all or nothing. Either policymakers need to combine evaluation systems with reforms that make it plausible to fire ineffective employees, or they shouldn’t bother with high stakes at all.

A few states have been willing to go the distance and in time perhaps others will. Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett combined teacher-evaluation reforms in Indiana with tenure and collective bargaining overhauls. Colorado’s Senate Bill 191 redefined tenure to align with evaluation results. And Tennessee, just last week, connected “re-licensure” with teachers’ contributions to student achievement.

But let’s be honest: America’s bluer states aren’t likely to go this far anytime soon—states like Illinois, whose ESEA waiver request is languishing because of the teacher-evaluation issue. Or New York, where the evaluation issue turned into an all-out food fight between policymakers and the unions—and where nobody is talking about reining tenure in for veteran teachers.

Some reformers think enacting evaluation systems is a “win” anyway—it “moves the needle” in the right direction. I disagree. There are significant costs in terms of dampening teacher morale, provoking a parent backlash, and over-encouraging teaching to the test. Maybe it’s worth it if we can identify and remove the worst teachers. But if that’s not going to happen, it’s a loss, not a victory.

And if the goal is simply to provide feedback to teachers, in order to help them improve their craft, then let’s just do that. Don’t even call it “evaluation.” Don’t attach any stakes. Just provide the data to teachers and principals—and continue to train the latter on how to conduct high-quality teacher observations—and call it a day.

The stakes are high—not just for teachers, but for the reform movement. As, I suspect, history will show.

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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