The Hangover Prequel?

by guestblogger Chad Aldeman

AEI recently released a paper by my Bellwether colleagues Sara Mead, Andrew Rotherham, and Rachael Brown looking at the possible implications for a teacher evaluation “hangover.” As nearly half the states have adopted new comprehensive teacher evaluation rules over the last few years, the paper asks what happens on the morning after. It’s a smart, clever, well-written piece, and it’s well worth your time to consider the trade-offs of state legislators mandating all elements of teacher evaluation policies in the midst of a changing education landscape.

And yet, there aren’t many states actually implementing comprehensive teacher evaluations yet. All they’ve done is adopted some policies, many of which don’t take effect for several years. For example, for all the talk about the new teacher evaluation requirements in Illinois, they don’t actually kick in statewide until the 2016-17 school year. That’s four years from now. For the 33 states and the District of Columbia that have earned flexibility from No Child Left Behind in exchange for, among other things, adopting new teacher and principal evaluation systems, those don’t have to be in place until 2014-15. That’s still two years away.

To extend the metaphor, it’s like we’re worrying about the hangover from New Year’s Eve 2014. There’s a lot of time, and a lot of stuff that needs to happen, between now and then.

The other meme that’s beginning to emerge, in The Hangover but also in Craig Jerald’s Movin’ It and Improvin’ It!  and Rachel Curtis and Ross Wiener’s Aspen Institute guide to developing teacher evaluation systems, is that these new evaluation systems should be used for more than firing bad teachers. That’s true! But, again, it’s just not really an issue yet.

Without evaluation systems actually in place, there aren’t that many schools or districts making consequential decisions based on a teacher’s performance. Going back to Illinois, the new Chicago teacher’s contract explicitly built in a “no stakes” year that effectively bars any consequences for teachers until at least 2014. Tennessee became the first state to implement a comprehensive statewide evaluation system last year, but for all of the hand-wringing about its evaluation system, the state doesn’t require districts to make any personnel decisions on the results. As the state writes in its approved ESEA Flexibility request, “teachers who perform “below expectations” (level 2 of 5) or “significantly below expectations” (level 1 of 5) for two consecutive years may be dismissed by their LEAs.” (emphasis added). Washington, D.C. is one of the few places in the country that systematically identifies and dismisses its low-performers. Since it adopted its IMPACT evaluation system in 2009-10, the District of Columbia Public Schools has dismissed roughly 3 percent of its workforce every year. There is a reason that it makes news when DCPS fires a tiny fraction of its teaching workforce for poor performance. It’s still very unusual.

All this is not to say the trade-offs in The Hangover aren’t important. We may eventually find out that states went too far in specifying the details of teacher and principal evaluation policies. And my colleagues are absolutely right to be concerned about new classroom and schooling structures that move beyond the traditional teacher-in-front-of-25-students model. But when we’re still living in a world where a state has 0.2 percent of its teaching workforce rated ineffective, we still have a ways to go. Hold off on buying that Advil just yet.

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