Washington State’s NCLB Waiver Depends on New Eval System

The U.S. Department of Education has approved Washington State’s request for a No Child Left Behind Waiver, but there’s a caveat: the waiver was granted for only one year. If Washington wants it renewed, they have to modify their teacher evaluation system to be more in line with the requirement that a “significant part” of the teacher’s rating be based on the student achievement data.

Earlier this year, Washington State lawmakers passed SB 5895, which set out a new system to be used to assess teacher effectiveness. This bill makes standardized tests a part of the criteria on which the teachers are judged, but specified that the test scores must contribute no more than 20% towards the instructor’s overall rating. Furthermore, under certain circumstances, schools are allowed to substitute metrics developed in-house for standardized tests as a measure of student achievement.

This data must be a “substantial factor” in only three out of eight measures of teacher performance.  The words “substantial factor” are not defined.  SB 5895 requires that the rest of a teacher’s evaluation be based on subjective observations of classroom practice, like “centering instruction on high expectations,” “demonstrating effective teaching practices,” “exhibiting collaborative and collegial practices focused on improving instructional practice and student learning.”

According to Liv Finne, the Director of the Center for Education, by setting the percentage so low, the legislators either missed or disregarded the message being sent out by the Department of Education and the Obama Administration that an objective measure of student progress weigh 50% in the evaluation formula. Whatever the reason, however, if Washington wants to keep its waiver, the state lawmakers will have to amend SB 5895 during the next legislative session.

The problem is that between the passage of the bill and now, there have been indicators that an evaluation system that heavily depends on standardized test scores is insufficient to effectively weed out bad teachers. The example was provided by Tennessee, which was one of the earliest Race to the Top winners and that recently implemented an assessment system that gives equal weight to achievement data and classroom observation.

Last week, The Tennessean reported in “Classroom observations fail to catch problems, state says:

According to a new state report from the Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee’s new way of evaluating classrooms “systematically failed” to identify bad teachers and provide them more training.

The real barrier to improvement is not too little or too much objective data, but the entrenched opposition from within to laying off underperforming instructors. Placing more power in the hands of the state or the federal government is unlikely to do anything to make principals less reluctant to fire bad teachers or make districts less reluctant to replace ineffective principals. A better approach would be to place responsibility for teacher assessment with the people in charge of running it, and then hold them responsible if the result is insufficiently good academic outcomes for the students.

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