Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently shook up the education policy world when she challenged one of the pillars of the education establishment for the last 10 to 15 years, that teachers’ job evaluations and pay should be linked to how students – even students they don’t teach – perform on standardized tests.
In an informal “roundtable” with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and a select audience of AFT members, Clinton stated, “I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes. There’s no evidence. There’s no evidence.”
“This is a direct shot at Obama’s education policy,” reported Vox the next day. “The Education Department pushed states to adopt policies that would link teachers’ professional evaluations in part to their students’ test scores.”
Echoing that accusation, The Washington Post reported Clinton was “dismissing a key feature of education policies promoted by the Obama administration.”
But the important story here isn’t that Clinton’s remark indicates what we can expect from her administration for education policy.
First, her statement wasn’t all that definitive. She followed the remark with a vague comment about linking tests to “school performance,” whatever that means, and she declared, “you’ve got to have something,” presumably meaning she would want to maintain annual testing favored by Obama.
Second, you can disagree with what Clinton said, or argue about the way she said it, but the reality is, federal pressures to require teacher evaluations to include test score data are likely going away. That’s because in the latest version of new federal policy being negotiated in Congress, “there would be no role for the feds whatsoever in teacher evaluation,” Education Week reports.
But, the important story isn’t as much about what Clinton said as it is about the response it got from the establishment that’s been in charge of education policy for nearly three decades.
The Silence Is Deafening
Instead of the expected blowback to Clinton, blogsites and media outlets that fill the policy establishment’s echo chamber had very little to say.
At The Seventy Four, a media site operated by former CNN newscaster Campbell Brown, Matt Barnum weighed Clinton’s comments and concluded what she said had some basis in fact. “We really don’t have a great way to evaluate teachers,” he declares – the operative word, “we,” being people who write policy fodder for a living, as opposed to real educators.
Katlin Pennington at the reform-minded Bellweather Education Partners noticed the absence of pushback to Clinton as well. “There has been little outrage from the wider education community,” she lamented. “This is in stark contrast to a few weeks ago when a frenzy ensued after Clinton denounced charter schools for cherry-picking kids.”
That contrast is indeed telling. Writers at the above-mentioned outlets were apoplectic at Clinton’s previous remarks that “most charter schools… don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”
The contrast is also stark given the previous role test-based teacher evaluations had in the canon of policy directives pushed onto public schools from the top down.
Remember Teacher ‘Effectiveness’?
Way back in 2008, Jonathan Alter, writing for Newsweek, declared, “The challenge is not to find what works for at-risk kids – we know that by now.”
What “works,” Alter believed back then, was to measure the “effectiveness” of teachers by the rise in tests scores of the students they teach. Teachers who “added value” to their students’ testing outcomes were more “effective” teachers, the idea went, and increasing students’ access to these effective teachers was allegedly the most important thing that could be done to improve the education prospects of the nation’s children – especially students in low-income communities who were struggling the most.
Much of the support behind this idea came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates money and influence inspired states and school districts around the country to develop these programs to rate teacher “effectiveness” and redistribute teaching staff accordingly to improve student performance.
The Gates influence was so pervasive, NBC News noted in 2009, “The real secretary of education, the joke goes, is Bill Gates.”
Numerous experts warned against this simplistic notion, but they were mostly ignored, and test-based teacher evaluations became a requirement for all sorts of goodies, including grants from the federal government and legal waivers from the federal legislation that demanded the tests to begin with.
In a 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama heralded a Harvard study that used test score data to conclude, in the president’s words, “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom.”
By 2013, former Washington D.C. Chancellor and prominent reform advocate Michelle Rhee was barnstorming the country, hawking her new memoir, with the message that being able to put “effective” teachers in front of the neediest students was virtually a certainty because of standardized tests and sophisticated data systems.
Flash forward to today, and we see that something that seemed so essential to the education reform prescription has slipped far down the rung of the policy ladder.
Of course, in states and districts where test-based teachers evaluations are thoroughly woven into the policy landscape, teachers will likely feel the effects of these systems for some time. So the fight over teacher evaluations is going to go state by state.
But as new reports continue to call the practice into question, there are more examples of where all the work that went into these programs is being gradually undone.
In New York, “it is highly likely that teacher evaluations won’t be linked to student test results … for the next two to three years,” according to a state-based reporter. The school district of Hillsborough, Florida recently abandoned its Gates-funded teacher evaluation system that cost millions to build and use.
What Reformers Will Fight For
Regardless of whether you believe Clinton’s comments on education policy are empty political rhetoric or total sellouts to the teachers’ unions, the one certainty is that the policy landscape in education is changing.
The populist rage against years of top-down education policy is being heard in political campaigns and in the halls of government. Politicians may be more up-for-grabs than they’ve been in years. So factions that have sat at the top of the policy pyramid are likely to find they have to narrow the front in what they’re willing to fight for.
The fight to expand charter schools is, for sure, a cause the policy establishment is eager to take up. But test-based teacher evaluations appear to be one of the first casualties to drop out of the establishment’s reform agenda.