The Ed Deformers have been attacking teachers and public education from numerous fronts (e.g., charter schools, vouchers, LIFO, VAM, etc.). While they claim that their intentions are to improve educational outcomes for students, each of these “reforms” allows entrepreneurs to transfer tax dollars into their pockets. NCLB, for example, has given away billions of dollars to textbook and test publishers, and billions more to Supplemental Educational Service providers. Both NCLB and Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) have accelerated the growth of private charter schools and for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs), worth billions more in taxpayer dollars, while Common Core Standards (CCS) has been driven by publishers, who have reaped millions of dollars by forcing states to purchase new textbooks.
One of their latest targets of “reform” is the teacher evaluation system, which critics cite as one of the biggest causes of low student achievement. If school districts are culling less than 5% of their teachers each year, they argue, then certainly there must be a lot of lousy teachers slipping through the cracks to molest, torment, ignore or otherwise harm children. The Gates Foundation and the United Way just came out with an extensive study on how to improve LAUSD, placing evaluation reform at the top of their agenda (see Destroying Education Teacher by Teacher).
While there is no logical reason to assume that low dismissal rates mean that our schools overrun with bad teachers (it could be evidence that the vast majority of teachers are actually quite competent), these statistics have been used to whip up hysteria about our children’s safety and well-being. Allowing even one bad teacher to remain in the system becomes tantamount to child abuse, in the propaganda of the deformers, thus justifying a complete overhaul of the system and (though never mentioned publicly) a further opening of the Public Education Market. Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk has called it a “Teacher-effectiveness industry,” but it is really just another angle in the corporate race to loot public education tax dollars.
In one example, Sawchuk cites an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story reporting that Georgia plans to spend $758,000 on outside experts to develop a teacher evaluation plan, provide training to teachers and administrators and perform follow-up surveys. The Georgia plan also includes a merit pay scheme based on student test scores.
Both the revamping of Georgia’s evaluation system and the merit pay scheme are part of the deal that brought the state $400 million in RTTT funds. Like most states that have joined the Race to the Trough, the “reforms” required to win RTTT funds cost far more than the federal grants they could or did win (though, in this case, the money for the evaluation reform contract is coming from the feds and is on top of their RTTT grant). While these economics might seem idiotic considering that the “reforms” have little or no benefit to students and that states already have huge deficits and cannot afford to spend frivolously, they make perfect business sense (i.e., the role of the state is to create a favorable business climate and help maximize profits).
Who Are The Real Bullies and Molesters?
In addition to the direct benefits to big business in the form of lucrative contracts and access to state and federal tax dollars, there is an indirect benefit to business in the form of weakening the unions and job security of teachers. Evaluation “reform” is really a Trojan horse for attacking tenure, seniority, compensation and due process rights for teachers, making it easier to fire them for reasons that have nothing to do with their skill or student well-being. For example, in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder wants to extend the probationary period for teachers from four years (already one of the highest in the nation) to five years, and they must be rated “effective” for three consecutive years, making it harder for them to earn tenure and job security (see Dave Murray’s piece in the Grand Rapids Press). Furthermore, even tenured teachers would have to be evaluated yearly (in many states, tenured teachers are evaluated every other year).
During the probationary period, teachers can be fired for any reason, even in order to replace a fifth-year probationary teacher with a first-year probationary teacher to save money, since the fifth-year teacher earns a higher salary. Furthermore, the longer the probationary period, the more power a district has to stifle dissent and weaken the union. Probationary teachers are much less likely to advocate for themselves (or their students) because they fear that drawing any attention to themselves (or ruffling any administrators’ feathers) might get them canned. For the same reason, probationary teachers tend to be much less active in their unions.
Even the best evaluation systems are subject to abuse. With the possible exception of a “double blind” process utilizing well-trained outside evaluators with no connections to the school district or any for-profit business, administrators can generally find a way to game the system in order to make a teacher look bad if they want to. When one considers the seemingly infinite amount of safety regulations, bureaucratic paperwork, bookkeeping, school policies and other responsibilities teachers must follow in addition to maintaining classroom discipline, teaching content, testing, communicating with parents and collaborating with peers, it is unlikely that there is a single teacher who is not guilty of some oversights each year.
Evaluation Reform Drives Down Wages Across the Economy
Evaluation “reform,” particularly when tied to tenure, promotion, and compensation, will most likely cause average teacher compensation to decline and make teaching a much less desirable job. While this does not have any direct benefit to business, it indirectly benefits business by bringing down all wages in the region and increasing the labor pool. Bosses compete with each other for employees and in some cases are forced to offer higher wages and benefits in order to attract them. When wages and benefits decline in one sector of the economy, it means that bosses in other sectors can offer jobs at lower wages and with worse benefits and still attract job candidates. With persistently high unemployment rates, this dynamic is exacerbated, as unemployed workers become more willing to accept lower pay and benefits, and employed workers accept less job security in exchange for promises of reduced layoffs and furloughs.
Is Real Reform Possible?
If the goal truly is to improve the quality of teaching, it is essential that the evaluation process be free of bias. This is not to say that all administrators are corrupt or self-serving (though there are plenty who do abuse the evaluation process to get rid of teachers they do not like for reasons unrelated to their skill). However, even those with good intent are still subject to the bias inherent in having a boss evaluate his or her own employees. Keep in mind that there are likely some mediocre or bad teachers who are protected by administrators, too, and many competent teachers who could benefit from meaningful evaluations and feedback to help them grow professionally.
If the goal truly is to improve educational outcomes, the evaluation reform debate must be reframed with an emphasis on the attraction, development and retention of good teachers, in contrast to the punitive approach that assumes incompetency and strives for elimination. Such a system would necessarily require a huge investment, not only to hire objective outsider evaluators to eliminate the bias inherent in administrator-based evaluations, but to fund more professional development designed to assist struggling teachers and help competent ones continue to grow. Over the past decade, the exact opposite has happened with respect to professional development, with states supporting fewer professional development days and workshops for teachers.
Any good evaluation system must focus entirely on what teachers are doing, and leave student performance and growth out of the picture. While this might seem counterintuitive, the vast majority of student achievement and growth (some say as much as 90%) is based on factors outside the classroom (particularly the students’ familial wealth). An evaluation system that includes student performance is therefore biased and will result in many false positives and negatives, which is not only unfair to the good teachers who get fired, but students who get stuck with the false positives. Furthermore, it will cause a mass exodus of veteran teachers from the lower income schools where they are most needed. Likewise, any system that ties pay to student performance will result in an abandonment of best teaching practices in favor of teaching to the test and rote test prep.
In California, the existing evaluation process is theoretically sound. There are very good state standards for the teaching profession. Any teacher who meets all these standards is most likely quite competent at their job. The problem is that administrators do not have the time to adequately observe teachers and assess them, they lack the training to do it well and, as mentioned before, they are not objective evaluators. Rather than pissing away a lot more money on private consultants to rework the standards or devise merit pay and value added schemes, the state would do well to leave the system intact, but invest in nonpartisan evaluators with the time and objectivity to do the job well, and professional development opportunities to encourage ongoing professional growth.