Race to the Top or to the Bottom? Overhauling Teacher Evaluation Systems Has the Potential to Undo Some of the Good Work of Past Reforms

By O'Donovan, Eamon | District Administration, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Race to the Top or to the Bottom? Overhauling Teacher Evaluation Systems Has the Potential to Undo Some of the Good Work of Past Reforms


O'Donovan, Eamon, District Administration


THE EDUCATION COMMUNITY has rightly identified teacher quality as the key factor in improving student achievement. Most people would now agree that students must have top quality teachers if students are to reach their potential. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) made teacher quality and accountability central in the debate on education. However, NCLB mandated improvement in student achievement as measured by state-selected standardized tests, and it added HQT (highly qualified teacher) to the educational alphabet soup, but it did not go far enough in making individual teachers accountable for student achievement.

The Race to the Top fund, however, has added a new twist. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are using a $4.35 billion incentive to entice states to overhaul teacher evaluation systems and pay scales in order to receive federal funding. This has had a seismic impact on the debate on teacher quality and teacher evaluation. State legislatures across the country have hastily ushered in new legislation to make their application for Race to the Top funds more competitive. The tighter the link between teacher evaluation and student test scores, the more points you win for your application for federal funds.

Collective Bargaining and Teacher Evaluation

But here is the big problem with Race to the Top in practice. Even if you subscribe to the general notion that teachers should be evaluated based on the performance of their students--a commonsense idea--teachers seem to be against it. As most states have collective bargaining laws, teacher evaluation is subject to collective bargaining. Therefore, no matter what the federal government says, or what state legislators demand, evaluation based on student test scores will not happen unless teacher unions agree to it.

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The National Education Association has come out strongly against Race to the Top. The NEA rightly points out that politically motivated legislators are setting criteria for how much student test scores should weigh into the calculation of a teacher's effectiveness. Politicians are not qualified to make this professional determination, and the measures are arbitrary. Teachers rightly ask how a 30 percent benchmark in California or a 50 percent benchmark in Colorado has any grounding in research, or is supported by any kind of empirical data. In fact, the higher benchmark is set in order to curry favor with the federal government and win more points in the application process.

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, has argued for increased accountability for public schools. In a May 25 blog post called "Just Say No to Race to the Top," however, she stated that although supervisors should take test scores into account when evaluating teachers, they shouldn't use a "fixed percentage, determined arbitrarily by legislators." She went on to state that the "issue of how to evaluate teachers should be resolved by professional associations working in concert, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and other professional groups. Why should such an important issue be determined by political negotiation rather than by professional standards?"

In talking to teachers about Race to the Top, I have found that many are demoralized. As practitioners, they really want their students to succeed, and most want their colleagues to work hard and help students succeed. They even agree that those who don't pull their weight should be given support and direction, and if they continue to fail their students, should leave the profession. They don't trust Race to the Top, however, and will negotiate from a very defensive posture when the subject comes up in collective bargaining. …

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