Blog: The Educated Reporter

With More Freedom, Will States Raise Bar for ‘Effective’ Teaching?

When schools consultant Tequilla Banks considers how best to ensure America’s low-income and minority students have access to effective teaching, her personal history is a helpful guide. Growing up in Arkansas, Banks witnessed first-hand how educational accountability can work – or not work, as the case may be — when state governments call the shots.

What she saw left her thankful for federal government intervention.

“I’m going to be a bit provocative here,” she told journalists gathered for a recent Education Writers Association conference in Chicago, “but I do question trusting some of the individual states.”

Citing the experiences of her African-American parents and grandparents in the South during the Civil Rights era, Banks warned of the risks of a system in which states were largely responsible for ensuring effective instruction for low-income and minority students.

“I look at the current context of our country and I just frankly worry about leaving it to chance that states will stand up with the will when the going gets tough,” said Banks, executive vice president of The New Teacher Project.

Over the next 18 months, states and school districts will assume a suite of new responsibilities under the recent rewrite of the main federal law for K-12 education. Among states’ new tasks is the one that, for Banks, raises concerns: They will be responsible for ensuring ineffective teachers are not clustered in poorer schools with big minority populations. The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law last December, serves as the newly revised framework for allocating federal dollars for key education programs, and sets expectations for districts and states.

Now, as the U.S. Department of Education drafts the regulations needed to help turn the law into policy, teachers and experts are turning their minds to the kinds of changes the legislation could herald. Handing the states more control over teacher effectiveness assessments is a shift many identify as important. And while Banks and others see risks, they note opportunities too.

ESSA replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, enacted under Republican President George W. Bush. Among NCLB’s provisions was a requirement for states to report regularly on whether or not teachers were “highly qualified”, which produced reams of data that, according to Rob Weil of the American Federation of Teachers, was often poorly interpreted. “Effective teaching is not just about having a little box checked,” Weil told the Chicago audience. “One of the biggest problems we have in our schools is we’re still trying to find the secret sauce.”

The data collected under NCLB ended up a routine in paper-shuffling, since the definition of highly-qualified teacher was watered down. But the Obama administration added another layer: Under waivers to NCLB, it required states to incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations.

School districts and state education departments were also faced with a problem: how to craft policy based on all the new information yielded from the now-mandatory student testing. Weil of the national teachers’ union said some places succeeded, and others did not.

“In Chattanooga, Tennessee,” he said, “they took on eight of their lowest performing schools, and did all this stuff, and they turned those schools around.” But in many other places, he contended, districts failed to use the data well. In part, the lack of a “playbook” on how to turn around under-performing schools meant little was done.

“Until we get to the mindset of ‘stop taking all these snapshots’,” he said, “we’ll cycle right back out for the test scores, and just go back and forth.”

Once the regulations for ESSA are finalized by the U.S. Department of Education, the task of defining when teachers are “ineffective” will be handed to states and they don’t have to use test scores as a measuring stick. The hope is also that the new law will lead to more creative ways of measuring students’ learning, which will result in more meaningful data and better policy responses. Weil sees an opportunity to shift away from the kind of data collection he regards as pointless and punitive. He hopes districts and states will adopt a “continuous improvement” model to make sure ineffective teachers get the support they need to become better in the classroom. “We have to rethink teacher evaluation in this country completely,” he told the conference.

Banks, who as a consultant at The New Teacher Project is in charge of building partnerships with school districts, argued that teachers needed clearer feedback on how they were doing. “We continue with systems that give teachers mixed messages,” she said. “Teachers get one story from their principal, another story from their central office, and maybe another story from their coach.”

Teacher effectiveness researcher Angela Minnici contends that implementation was the real problem that bedeviled NCLB. AT EWA’s Chicago event, Minnici, head of the American Institutes for Research’s Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, said there was ample research on how to turn around low-performing schools. She suggested the attempt in ESSA to re-empower the states to tackle structural inequities could change things for the better.

“Students in our lowest-performing schools still do not have the best teachers that they need,” she said. “What we need is leaders who have a very specific skill-set to actually come in to low-performing schools and help turn them around. We need really high instructional quality.”

Those ideas – higher instructional quality and intervention by well-trained leaders – are also what the teachers’ union says it wants. On its website, AFT concedes teacher evaluation and intervention, done right, can “weed out those who should not remain in the profession”. But, of course, those kinds of measures come with a considerable price tag. Implementing them could ultimately mean diverting revenue from well-performing schools to under-performing ones with high concentrations of low-income and minority populations. To many observers, that is the element of the Every Student Succeeds Act that raises most concerns.

“There’s more funding flexibility than there’s ever been before, so states and districts can make lots of choices to really focus in on our lowest performing schools if they want to,” Minnici said.

But the AFT’s Weil, and others, doubt they will.

“Every time we talk about equity in this country,” Weil said, “the very first thing that comes up is how we fund our schools, and we never change it.”

Whether the new powers that states are afforded will focus attention on funding inequities remains to be seen. But on one thing, the speakers on the panel agreed: If the reforms do not bring about funding changes at the state and district level, many of America’s poorest children–stuck in under-resourced schools with ineffective teachers–will continue being left behind.