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Federal Waivers, an Advocacy Group, and Teacher Evaluations: A Michigan Story

After the demise of Washington state's waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, my colleague Alyson Klein over at Politcs K-12 wrote that Michigan is another state poised to enter the waiver danger zone. On April 29, she reported that the feds are displeased that for the 2014-15 school year, Michigan does not yet require assessment data to be used in teacher evaluations statewide. 

As it happens, the state's lawmakers, per Brian Smith at the MLive news site, are considering a package of bills that include altering teacher evaluations so that they would include students' performance on assessments. If the bills become law, teacher evaluations across the state would have to be based in part on student growth on state assessments statewide for the 2014-15 school year. That move, in turn, would satisfy the U.S. Department of Education regarding the future of Michigan's NCLB waiver.

Smith calls the proposed changes "bipartisan" because one Democrat, Rep. Adam Zemke, and one Republican, Rep. Margaret O'Brien, are behind the bills. But that turned out to be not the only thing that was bipartisan about the situation. When the bills were due for official consideration in the House education committee April 30, lawmakers focused much of their attention not on the legislation, but on a K-12 policy-advocacy group, Education Trust-Midwest, which is based in Royal Oak, Mich. The group had emailed legislators to say that if they didn't pass the legislation, Michigan's waiver would be in jeopardy (for what it's worth, the group cited Alyson's April 29 blog post as evidence).

Lawmakers reacted unkindly to the email.

"I've been trying to at least get to neutral on this package, because I do have concerns about cost and other things, but the email from Ed Trust-Midwest did you no favors in trying to get the bill through committee, and bullying and threatening tactics don't work, neither among strong conservatives nor among strong liberals," Rep. Bob Genetski, a Republican, told O'Brien and Zemke, according to Smith. Zemke also called Education Trust-Midwest's claim "completely inaccurate."

State legislators, understandably, don't want to feel like they're being frogmarched by the feds, or anyone else, into approving legislation dealing with a controversial subject like teacher evaluation. But clearly, the education department says some sort of legislative action on evaluations for the 2014-15 school year is important in the context of Michigan's waiver. 

In a statement, Arellano was brief and didn't mention the dyspepsia about her group's email: "We know this issue is important to improving educational achievement for Michigan's students. We are pleased to see the committee is preparing to move ahead."

The plan now under consideration in Michigan, by the way, would set the student-growth- and assessment-based portion of evaluations at 25 percent for the 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17 years. In 2017-18, it would rise to 40 percent of teachers' evaluations. 

There's also potential a controversy brewing over what that state assessment used in evaluations would be. The state is set to give the Smarter Balanced test in 2014-15, but some lawmakers apparently would prefer that Michigan give its NCLB-era test, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), instead. As Smith details in his once-again excellent reporting, however, state Superintendent Mike Flanagan has said that giving MEAP isn't an option for the state in 2014-15.

While the Smarter Balanced assessment, which is aligned to the Common Core State Standards, is expected to be a more difficult test for students than NCLB tests like MEAP, that doesn't automatically mean how states calculate student growth on the tests will be tougher on teachers. 

As you might recall, in 2013, Michigan enacted a temporary spending provision on both the common core and Smarter Balanced while legislators undertook an analysis of the standards and the test. While officials ultimately opted to stick with both the common core, which has the support of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, as well as Smarter Balanced, that doesn't mean all anxiety about the test has been eased. Lawmakers in Florida and Louisiana, to varying degrees, are also looking at how the common core and aligned tests are impacting their accountability systems, and how spreading that impact over more than one year might be in order.

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