Obama and Teacher Evaluation

This is a (slightly-out-of-date) map of adoption of teacher evaluation systems that include student growth/VAM:


This is a veritable policy blitzkrieg. Yes, California is a holdout, which is why the Vergara case happened. But a perfect storm of forces made changes in teacher evaluation- and in education policy in general– one of the most striking shifts of Obama’s presidency, in some ways surpassing the ACA in its impacts on regular people’s lives:

a) Republicans, since the 1980s and a Nation at Risk, have most often taken on the mantle of the party of education reform, partly because it let them strike at teachers’ unions but also because an emphasis on education as a means of opportunity was largely in keeping with the party’s attacks on other forms of welfare and poverty support.
b) Beginning in the 1990s, and solidifying with the rise of Teach for America and offspring programs like KIPP and the New Teacher Project, a growing group of urban professionals and big city Democrats (like the Obamas, for example) saw education reform and shaking things up in urban schools as a key measure of their willingness to take risks on behalf of their core constituents and to prove that the Democrats were the party of tough choices and measurable results. By the late 2000s, Teach for America had accumulated a war-chest of over a billion with a b dollars– simply unprecedented for a domestic nonprofit unrelated to health care. This confluence of big money support and interest by the policy elite translated directly into the priorities of the Obama campaign and administration.
c) Rockoff, Hanushek, Chetty, and other center-left economists of education provided key support for the policies embraced by this cohort of Democrats. Not only did economists help develop the actual value-added models that were a centerpiece of the teacher reforms, but economists’ evidence-like Chetty’s testimony in the Vergara case- was crucial in convincing policy elites that these reforms were the right way to go.
d) This was especially true for how the media treated the issue– you could never have gotten the atmosphere that produced Waitingfor Superman or this Time cover , or the New Yorker’s rubber room articles without a lot of buy-in from traditional Democratic groups.
e) The recession hit state and local budgets particularly hard, because the housing crisis meant property tax receipts disappeared like Buffalo wings at a Superbowl party. The districts had no money, everyone knew it, and more importantly there was nowhere else for teachers to go if a district renegotiated their contracts on less favorable terms.

f) The stimulus bill gave the federal government huge leverage over state and district priorities, offering over 100 billion with more-or-less no questions asked but keeping the Race to the Top money in reserve as a competitive grant- with changes in teacher evaluation as the number one priority in assessing applications.
g) Republican governors made huge gains in 2009 and 2010; with union-unfriendly teacher reform (whether public fights like Walker’s or quieter fights like Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder) a natural priority, they were more than happy to work with the Obama Administration to make it easier to fire teachers and weaken union rules.

Some of this might get rolled back as more union-friendly Democrats or less reformist Republicans get into office, but the majority will stay. A good example of this is DC– Michelle Rhee got fired when a more traditional (and less Obama-esque) black Democratic mayor got elected; but her two successors– more politically low-key and friendlier in affect to teachers than her- have made little attempt to roll back the new teacher evaluation system and it looks to be here to stay.

These are deep changes in how teachers work and how, consequently, ordinary American kids live their lives. The fact that this change has taken place in many cases with relatively little public recognition or debate is a sign not of its insignificance but of the fact that partisan politics are sufficiently polarized that only outside of the limelight does any kind of bipartisan reform actually go on.

P.S. You can tell that Obama is sincere about this stuff– or at least saw that this was where the Party was moving before his competitors did, from a speech he gave in 2006, when he was just coming to prominence.

Fortunately, educational leaders like the people in this room know what reforms really work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills. Longer hours and more days to give kids the time and attention they need to learn. Early childhood education for every child so they’re not left behind before they even start school, a measure Governor Blagojevich has recently introduced. Meaningful, performance-based assessments that can give us a fuller picture of how a student is doing. And putting effective teachers and transformative principals in front of our kids.

All of these reforms need to be scaled-up and replicated across the country. But in the time I have remaining, let me use just talk about a few to point to what’s possible, starting with one place where I think we can start making a big difference in education right now.

From the moment our children step into a classroom, new evidence shows that the single most important factor in determining their achievement today is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have.

It’s who their teacher is. It’s the person who will brave some of the most difficult schools, the most challenging children, and accept the most meager compensation simply to give someone else the chance to succeed.

One study shows that two groups of students who started third grade at about the same level of math achievement finished fifth grade at vastly different levels. The group with the effective teacher saw their scores rise by nearly 25%. The group with the ineffective teacher actually saw their scores drop by 25%.

But even though we know how much teaching matters, in too many places we’ve abandoned our teachers and principals, sending them into some of the most impoverished, underperforming schools with little experience or pay; little preparation or support. After a few years of experience, most will leave to pick wealthier, less challenging schools.

The result is that some of our neediest children end up with less-experienced, poorly-paid teachers who are far more likely to be teaching subjects in which they have no training. Minority students are twice as likely to have these teachers. In Illinois, students in high-poverty schools are more than three times as likely to have them.


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