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Feds Offer Flexibility on Teacher-Evaluation Implementation

Colleague Alyson Klein reports that the U.S. Department of Education will consider giving states an extra year to implement their new teacher-evaluation systems before putting the teeth into them.

As you probably know, instituting teacher-evaluation systems was one of the conditions of the waivers the department offered states in exchange for getting out of some requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. States got about three years in all to complete the work: One year to pilot, the second year to implement, and the third to use for personnel decisions, such as tenure-granting or dismissal.

Under the new flexibility, states could have until 2016-17 to make this final step, though it will depend on when they were initially granted a waiver.

The policy shift seems a direct response to recent concerns about implementation of new academic-content standards, also a condition of the waivers, which will change what schools and students are tested on and the instruction teachers are expected to deliver.

First came Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, who said there should be a moratorium on using the new tests for judging schools or teachers until new standards are well implemented.

Then, the Council of Chief State School Officers said it was interested in some transitional flexibility, but not a blanket moratorium.

In his letter Tuesday announcing the flexibility, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also was adamant that the new flexibility is "not a pause or moratorium." States will still have to complete rolling out their systems and training teachers.

If you're scratching your head by now, especially at officials' strict avoidance of the idea of a "pause," consider it a testament to the ferocious politics surrounding both new standards and teacher evaluation. Both have been very controversial with a lot of battling constituencies, and both are hitting schools all at once. Supporters, like Duncan, want to be seen as pushing forward, but they are also facing a lot of stressed-out educators.

Weingarten told me in an interview Tuesday that she was heartened that the administration seems to be listening to teachers' concerns. "There is no shame to a mid-course correction when you have ambitious goals, and you see you're not getting there in the time table you wanted," she said.

But, she cautioned, states now need to make good use of the extra time to get teachers and students ready.

"The worst thing would be for this to be seen as a delay or a pause," she said. "It is a period of time that has to be used for intense activity to get implementation right and have the supports teachers need, and the information that parents need, and kids need, so that they know what we're trying to do here."

There are a few other things worth noting here about this not-a-pause. For one, the federal accountability landscape is starting to grow increasingly complicated between the waivers, their varying content, and differing timelines. As the Huffington Post's Joy Resmovits' write-up makes clear, this action is not going to do much to assuage critics who already think the feds are way too involved in these decisions.

Second, it's worth considering many of the technical issues involved in integrating student achievement measures into teachers' evaluations, another requirement of the waivers. That's been difficult with existing tests, and the different properties of the exams that two consortia are devising to reflect the new standards raise some new issues.

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