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Senate Ed. Panel Unlikely to Require Teacher Evaluations in NCLB Overhaul

Washington

Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it's unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements.

Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn't mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers.

The lack of language in the reauthorization requiring teacher evaluations will likely stop in its tracks the Obama administration's efforts to push states to adopt evaluation systems based in part on student test scores and performance-based compensation systems, both of which were at the heart of U.S. Department of Education's NCLB waivers.

"My experience is that finding a way to fairly reward better teaching is the holy grail of K-12 education," said Alexander. "But Washington will get the best long-term result by creating an environment in which states and communities are encouraged, not ordered, to evaluate teachers."

The hearing was the second in a series focusing on specific aspects of the NCLB law, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that lawmakers in both chambers are in the process of reauthorizing. (The first hearing focused on testing and accountability.)

During opening remarks, Alexander drew heavily from his time as governor of Tennessee, during which he persuaded the legislature to pass a measure establishing career ladders for teachers and a compensation system based on teacher performance.

"I had a year-and-a-half brawl with the National Education Association before I could pass our teacher-evaluation program," Alexander said.

Despite his belief that teacher evaluations and compensation systems based on performance are imperative, he doesn't plan to pursue specific requirements in the reauthorization.

"You can't do it from Washington," he said.

Murray said that states should have ways to measure how educators are doing, but she is "wary of using them as the sole factor in setting salaries or using testing as the sole indicator in an evaluation."

She said the committee should consider ways to recruit and retain diverse educators and find a way to ensure the most successful teachers are working with the students who need them most.

Given the current language in the draft reauthorization, however, Murray will likely have a hard time convincing her counterparts to include anything that specific in the forthcoming bill.

To recap, here's what's included in Alexander's draft reauthorization regarding teachers:

  • Title II: The draft would block-grant Title II, giving states lots of leeway over how they spend federal teacher-quality money. They could use it for teacher evaluations, professional development, pre-service teacher prep, or pretty much anything else.
  • Highly Qualified Teachers: The draft would ditch the NCLB's law's "highly qualified" teacher provisions, though states would still have to ensure teachers meet state licensure requirements.
  • Teacher Incentive Fund: The draft would enshrine in law the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create alternative-pay programs.
  • Teacher Distribution: The draft would require states to provide some sort of assurance that low-income students get good teachers and school leaders, and strong instructional programs. (The current law calls for states to ensure kids in high-poverty schools have access to as many qualified teachers as those in wealthier schools.)
  • Funding Transferability: The draft would allow 100 percent transfer between Title II and Title IV (safe and healthy schools) funding.

Head over here for more details on the draft reauthorization.

What Witnesses Had to Say

Terry Holliday, the outspoken commissioner of education in Kentucky, said the entire teacher and principal-leader pipeline needs to be revamped. That includes everything from preparation programs and recruitment into the profession to professional development and evaluation, as well as retention and working conditions.

He noted that these things take time and that one of the most important factors for their success is that they need to be done cooperatively with teachers and leaders, "not done to teachers and leaders."

"Our teacher and leader effectiveness systems took years to develop, and we are continuing to improve the systems," he said.

Holliday also used his bully pulpit to take a jab at the U.S. Department of Education.

"In order to create a system of support for teachers and school leaders, we as state leaders in education do not need review or approval from the U.S. Department of Education," he said.

Testimony from Christine Handy-Collins, a principal at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, emphasized that states and districts must be directed to place a more serious effort into recruiting and training principals to work in high-needs school districts, especially principals who reflect the increasing racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of students.

Rachelle Moore, a 1st grade teacher in Seattle who is also a member of the National Education Association, agreed.

She said she favored creating a teacher-induction program, similar to that of the medical profession, where novice teachers are paired with experienced teachers for an entire year. Moore is a mentor at the Seattle Teacher Residency, one such program that's funded by the NEA. 

Meanwhile, Saul Hinojosa, the superintendent of the 4,000-student Somerset School District in Bexar and Atascosa County Texas, focused on compensation models in which educators have the opportunity to earn additional compensation based on their own classroom performance, the performance of their students, the performance of the campus, and for taking on new leadership roles and responsibilities.

"We must recognize and reward teachers who accelerate student learning, take on the most challenging assignments, and serve in leadership roles, rather than basing teacher pay solely on years of experience and degrees earned," he said, adding that policies such as those he supports have led to increased student achievement in math and reading for his district.

Dan Goldhaber, the director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research and the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, Bothell, was less enthusiastic about some of the teacher-compensation models Hinojosa mentioned. 

Goldhaber said that data shows that efforts like incentive compensation, in which, for example, teachers are paid a bonus if their students meet certain performance targets, have limited impacts on student achievement. However, evidence does show that higher permanent salaries reduce teacher attrition. 

A Rift Between Parties

The hearing exposed what any education policy and politics watcher likely already knew would be a major policy chasm between Republicans and Democrats in the draft reauthorization: block-granting Title I and Title IV and allowing states to transfer funding from one to the other.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., railed against language in the draft, arguing that it would give states millions of dollars without a single requirement that they spend any of the money on teachers.

"Maybe it will happen sometimes," Warren said about states directing money to help teachers, "but nothing in this proposal requires states to spend a single dollar on teachers."

Handy-Collins agreed and also noted the need for dedicated funding for principal development. According to a 2013 Education Department study, school districts only use 4 percent of their Title II dollars for principal professional development.

When asked in an interview after the hearing whether there might be room for negotiating with Democrats on those issues, Alexander laughed.

"That's a traditional difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrats," he said.

Another rift to keep your eye on is Title I portability. My colleague Alyson Klein reported the developing split on Monday.

Returning to the Testing and Accountability Debate

Questions from committee members often steered the conversation back to testing and accountability, which was the theme of last week's hearing.

In one important exchange between Alexander and Holliday, the chairman asked the state chief whether he supports the current 17 annual tests required under the NCLB law. Holliday said that yes, he did, but that there are various ways states annual assessments can be addressed.

Alexander then asked Holliday what he would say to people who believe states can't be trusted to devise their own accountability systems to decide whether schools are succeeding or failing and what to do about those that are failing.

Holliday said that anyone who believes that is "stuck in the '80s," and that state chiefs are more committed to than ever before to run a tight ship. Besides, he said, any state chief trying to scam the system wouldn't be able to hide from the state's NEAP scores, which is given every two years.

"That's a treasure trove of data to hold states accountable," Holliday said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who last week ripped on the number and quality of tests students in his home state are taking, asked each witness to approximate how many fewer tests the federal law should mandate states give.

The general consensus was that students should take about 50 percent fewer tests.

Goldhaber, however, said that a move away from the current law's annual testing requirements would eliminate the ability of states and school districts to guage educator effectiveness.

In an interview after the hearing, Alexander said that he found Sen. Whitehouse's question helpful, and that "the jury is still out" as to how the language regarding testing in the reauthorization bill will be framed.

"What we're learning is that a lot of the tests are directly related to something other than the 17 federal tests that Washington requires," he said.

Moving Forward

The committee will convene again for a round-table session on Feb. 3, to discuss innovation in education at the state and local level.

Alexander said he still anticipates completely markup of the reauthorization bill by March, but he was less confident about finding time for it on the floor, noting the difficulty his party has had with the Keystone pipeline bill and that a homeland security bill will take precedence over NCLB reauthorization.

"We have to go to the floor for an extended period of debate and discussion," Alexander said. "Then we have to go to conference, and then we have to discuss it with the president. So this isn't the final word. This is step one."

No Child Left Behind took seven weeks and that was back in 2001, Alexander added.

"This won't take seven weeks, but it will take a couple," he said.

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