What Obama’s Signature Education Reform Got Wrong

What Obama’s signature education reform got wrong
Four lessons offer guidance for next administration

January 12, 2017—Conservative education reformers see disconcerting parallels between President-elect Trump’s proposed $20 billion federally-funded state voucher initiative and the outgoing administration’s far-reaching Race to the Top competition and No Child Left Behind waiver program. In a new article for Education Next, Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, previously a member of President Obama’s education policy team, looks back on the implementation of the administration’s signature education reform to glean important lessons about the role the federal government can effectively play in education policy—and what warnings the next administration should heed.

Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allotted over $4 billion for competitive state grants, the Obama administration encouraged states and districts to redesign their teacher and principal evaluation systems through implementation of the Race to the Top grant competition and, subsequently, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver program and an expansion of the Teacher Incentive Fund. By 2015, 43 states required that objective measures of student achievement be included in teacher evaluations—up from 15 states in 2009. And although no state required districts to consider student learning when making decisions on teacher tenure in 2009, 23 states did so by 2015.

But according to Aldeman, the Obama administration’s teacher evaluation revamp failed to achieve its primary objectives of more accurate evaluation systems and more districts using the results of those evaluations to make consequential personnel decisions. The share of teachers receiving a less-than-satisfactory rating hardly budged in most states as the new systems were implemented: in 22 of the 24 states that had implemented a new teacher evaluation system by the 2014-15 school year, one percent or less of teachers received an unsatisfactory rating. And although districts did not get much upside in terms of removing low performers, the perceived threat of dismissal caused widespread political conflict.

Among the key lessons from Aldeman’s insider analysis is a word of caution to the incoming Trump administration about the dangers of a universal approach to advancing reform. The Obama administration sought to apply its ideas everywhere. Under the NCLB waiver program, all states, regardless of interest and capacity, were asked to tackle teacher evaluation systems—whether they wanted to or not. To the incoming administration, Aldeman advises, “take to heart the adage that the federal government can make states and districts do something, but it can’t make them do those things well.”

To receive an embargoed copy of “The Teacher Evaluation Revamp, in Hindsight: What the Obama administration’s signature reform got wrong” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at jackie.kerstetter@educationnext.org. The article will be available Wednesday, January 18 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Spring 2017 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 28, 2017.

About the Author: Chad Aldeman is a principal at Bellwether Education Partners. Previously, he was a policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education, where he worked on ESEA waivers, teacher preparation, and the Teacher Incentive Fund.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.

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