Feds and States and Widgets—Oh My!

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, February 1, 2017

The Feds

For nearly seven years the Obama Department of Education (USDOE), through its Race to the Top (RttT) program and its issuance of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers, pushed states to establish “rigorous” teacher evaluation systems that incorporated student achievement evidence, the results of which would then be used in personnel decisions. The USDOE was particularly keen on “enticing” states with RttT and similar funding to require student growth measures as a “significant” component of individual ratings. The feds aimed in large part to end the “widget effect”—the tendency of then-existing evaluations to deem virtually all teachers “effective” regardless of actual performance in improving student learning.

The USDOE did succeed in igniting teacher evaluation reforms nationwide. In 2009, only 15 states required that teacher evaluations include measures of student learning.  By 2015, 43 states did so, with 30 mandating that student academic growth constitute a significant factor in grading teacher performance. While in 2009 no state made teacher evaluations a required consideration in tenure decisions, 23 did so in 2015.

But 2015 also saw the end of the NCLB era with the passage of the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA in general reins in federal power, creating more flexibility for states, and it effectively ends federal involvement in state teacher evaluation systems. Each state can now decide how to ensure teacher quality in its local schools.

 The States

Beginning in 2016, states did not hesitate to exercise their renewed authority over teacher evaluation, specifically as it concerns reliance on student test scores. By year’s end, the 2015 high of 43 states requiring use of student growth data in teachers’ evaluations had fallen to 40. And further changes may be in the offing, as last month new state legislative sessions convened following the November elections.

“States are all over the map when it comes to how they’re looking to approach teacher-evaluation systems under ESSA” is how Education Week sub-titled its December 30, 2016 online article published in anticipation of the New Year. Among examples including Alaska, Iowa, Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, California, and North Carolina, the article discussed a number of states that have delayed or were actively reconsidering the role student growth measures should play in teacher evaluations. Further, “[e]ven within states, there has been some back and forth.” It seems that states still seek to hold teachers accountable, especially in the face of disappointing national test scores, and they definitely still want to counter the widget effect. But do test-based teacher performance measures remain the educationally (and politically) best answer?

The Widgets

In a January 2017 report, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) argues “yes,” if only such teacher evaluation systems would really rely on student growth measures, instead of assigning them a de facto insignificant place in teacher effectiveness scoring systems. Invoking the ur-text that coined, and decried, the widget effect, the NCTQ report blames state departments of education that have failed to effectively implement Obama-era reforms: “While most states have not formally retreated, they do not actually need to do so because, as this report explains, guidance and regulation from state educational agencies has minimized, indeed marginalized, the importance of student learning in their teachers’ evaluation ratings” (p. 3). The report then goes on to show how, even in the vast majority of states making student achievement a significant factor in teacher evaluations, teachers can earn at least an “effective” rating even as they fail to meet student growth goals. The widget effect persists.

What of classroom observations, which most evaluation systems also require, and which consume a large amount of school administrators’ time and energy? In an online article published last December, Brookings Senior Fellow Mark Dynarski argues that, as typically conducted, classroom observations neither accurately assess teacher effectiveness nor provide useful feedback to teachers. The result: while the widget effect reigns over teacher evaluations, student achievement lags.  Plus the whole process nationally costs an estimated at $1.5 billion per year.

Some have proposed alternative teacher evaluation measures or processes (for example, see here and here), but these have yet to gain research or policy traction. With the initiative handed to states by the ESSA, and each state having its own particular political environment, state legislatures seem consigned—or perhaps resigned—to muddle through on their own.

Contact Dirk: zuschla2@msu.edu

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.