This week's media extravaganza over the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were the latest distraction from what really matters for the nation's education policy.
As Valerie Strauss put it on her blog at The Washington Post, "The scores … don’t mean much, if anything, but that doesn’t stop people from saying they do."
Embracing the urge to say something about the "meaning" of PISA to the extreme, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the release of the scores as an opportunity to stage PISA Day, a 5-hour (!) media event involving other groups who, as economists at the Economic Policy Institute explain, generally support a political agenda favoring policies that have been branded as "reform."
What really matters, of course, are the real effects of the Duncan-led reform agenda on the ground. And what are those effects?
As Stephanie Simon reported at Politico, the agenda Duncan "began to advance in 2009 has now hit serious roadblocks."
"States are balking at reforms they pledged to implement," Simon elaborated, and "a noisy opposition to Duncan’s reforms has emerged."
Further, "there’s no clear evidence that Duncan’s prescriptions are boosting student achievement, though his backers say it’s still too early to tell."
The Bad Deal On Teacher Distribution
Particularly anger-inducing has been the way the Duncan/reform agenda has faltered on the need to expand access that poor and language-minority kids have to the best teachers.
Historically, schools that serve the most disadvantaged children have tended to have the least qualified teachers, as measured by preparation, experience, and other factors. This historic disparity is particularly damaging to these students because most research has shown that the abilities of teachers are the most important school-based influence on student learning.
So in the interest of "equity," reformers made a deal with states. In order to receive grant money from big ED, and have certain federal laws waived, states had to impose an array of new personnel management policies. Among those policies were implementations of new teacher evaluation systems and pledges to uphold standards for "highly qualified teachers."
The new policies were claimed to address inequity by using standardized test scores to evaluate teacher "effectiveness" and then coerce states to distribute the "most effective" teachers more widely to under-served schools.
This direction appealed to budget-minded conservative lawmakers by giving them the ability to provide pay raises and merit rewards to smaller pools of teachers – only those who were "effective." And it appealed to civil rights groups that wanted to see to more poor and minority students with equal access to qualified, experienced, and subject-matter expert teachers.
But now it has become increasingly clear that neither side is pleased.
Just before the Thanksgiving break, according to a report in Education Week, USDE announced that a dozen states – mostly conservative ones – have asked for at least a year delay in rolling out new teacher-evaluation systems they had agreed to impose as part of waiving federal laws known as No Child Left Behind.
Under NCLB waivers, states were "supposed to implement new evaluation systems and tie them to personnel decisions, such as firings and tenure, by the 2015-16 school year."
Ed Week reporter Michelle McNeil noted the state requests came after USDE had already granted extensions twice before to give states more time – based on the first waiver – "to decide whether they want an extra year to implement a key piece of their teacher-evaluation systems."
Now states want waivers from the waivers.
An 'F' On Teacher Equity
On the other side of the deal on teacher evaluation and distribution, civil rights groups have grievances as well.
Again in the pages of Education Week, we learned that states that wanted waivers from federal laws had to "use teacher-evaluation data to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective teachers at a higher rate than their white and better-off peers."
"Those requirements are now gone."
The rationale for this lifting of restrictions lies further down the page: "Adding teacher-distribution requirements to waiver renewals would have piled a significant amount of work on states already grappling with implementing the Common Core State Standards and new teacher-evaluation systems linked to student growth."
Writing at Strauss' blogsite at The Washington Post, Tara Kini, an attorney for a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization, complained that the Obama administration had pledged "to provide poor and minority students with equal access to qualified, experienced and subject-matter expert teachers."
Yet, under Duncan's guidance, states can now get waivers to the federal laws "without having made – or even promising to make – any progress at all on teacher equity."
Further, Kini accused the Obama administration of "effectively endorsing the disproportionate assignment of teachers-in-training to low-income schools" by allowing teachers in training, particularly those working with Teach for America, to be labeled as "highly qualified teachers."
"Actions speak louder than words," Kini concluded. "Right now, President Obama is earning an ‘F’ for his policies on teacher equity."
There's A Better Way Forward
The idea of getting more successful teachers to work in schools that poor kids attend is not without merit.
Recent research on a Talent Transfer Initiative conducted under the auspices of the federal government looked at whether a large financial incentive ($20,000 paid out over two years) would encourage high-performing teachers to transfer to selected low-performing schools in their district – and would this transfer raise achievement.
Veteran education journalist Dana Goldstein, writing at Slate, reviewed the study and concluded, "The good news is that … a significant pay raise can move good veteran teachers to struggling schools and keep them there." The higher-performing teachers raised student achievement by 4 to 10 percentile points.
"The bad news is that less than a quarter of the 1,500 effective teachers asked to participate in this experiment chose to apply."
Goldstein surmised that reluctance to teach in schools servicing poor kids could be due to working conditions in those schools – particularly high turnovers in administration staffing and lager class sizes.
"In short," Goldstein concluded, "we should listen to what teachers are telling researchers about their preferences: Class sizes should be reasonable, and principals matter. But money matters too. Showing great teachers how valuable they are, by paying them more and asking them to take on the most challenging assignments, can potentially improve results—a lot."
Also, what should be noted is that a teacher who was enticed to switch jobs for $20,000 transferred regardless – and here's the kicker – "of how well her new students performed."
In other words, no coercion, no competition, and no punishments for "failure."
Making a similar observation about the study was Diane Ravitch who wrote at her blog, "The bonus was awarded for transferring to the low-performing school for two years, not for getting higher test scores" and it was the "older, experienced teachers" – not new recruits from Teach for America – who got the "better results."
An Important New Guide
Following on the heels of the TTI study was an important new document from the Opportunity to Learn campaign Excellent Teachers For Each And Every Child: A Guide for State Policy. (Disclosure OTL is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network and the Campaign for America's Future.)
The guide lays out a holistic view of how to address the many factors that influence "teaching quality" and more equitable distribution of high-quality teachers to schools that need them the most.
Addressing teaching quality, the guide states, must take into account not just the teacher but the factors that affect the quality of teaching, such as the expertise of teachers and their professional peers, learning conditions, school environment, instructional resources, and supports (academic, social, emotional, and health)."
In particular, the guide recommends the adoption of policies to
- Recruit diverse and talented individuals into the teaching profession
- Prepare teachers to be ready for the classroom and for leadership
- Support ongoing professional learning and development
- Develop evaluation systems that improve student learning
- Address teaching and learning conditions
- Fund a sustainable teaching force
- Promote comprehensive teaching quality strategies
For state lawmakers and other policy wonks, the guide cites specific laws and policy proposals that support a more comprehensive way to address the issue of quality teaching.
The evidence the guide draws from and its recommendations are sharp contrasts to the Duncan/reform platform that supports crude rankings, harsh sanctions, and never-ending restrictions with waivers of the restrictions.
The publicity introducing this guide claimed, "Recommendations draw from substantial research on teacher effectiveness and from the practices of high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore" – two countries that, by the way, tend to perform at the top of the PISA rankings. Do you think Arne Duncan will notice that?