Peter Callaghan: Common ground on teacher evaluations needs common facts

Staff WriterFebruary 25, 2014 

You can’t agree to disagree if you can’t even agree on what you disagree about.

Yet such is the condition of the debate over using state test results in teacher and principal evaluations. At issue is the demand by the federal Department of Education that if the state wants to keep its waiver from current law known as No Child Left Behind law, it must include state tests as one factor in evaluations.

If the Legislature refuses, the federal government will definitely conclude that nearly every district in the state isn’t meeting annual yearly progress and will be labeled “failing.” That’s current federal law. After that, it is very likely that the Education Department will redirect $44 million in federal Title I money for high-poverty schools.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who met with federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Sunday, said he will begin talking with lawmakers to find a “path forward.” But without common facts, how can the Legislature reach common ground? Looks like another job for the Mythbusters.

Myth 1: This issue is really about whether student testing will be used in evaluating teachers and principals.

Truth: That issue was resolved two years ago when bipartisan majorities of the House and Senate passed — and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed — Senate Bill 5895. That law not only strengthened the evaluation system by placing consequences on poor performance, it mandated that student growth data be a substantial factor in evaluations.

Myth 2: The federal government wants the statewide tests to be the only tests used in evaluations, but those tests don’t cover all subjects and don’t reflect all aspects of good teaching and school leadership.

Truth: Yes, the federal government has directed that the statewide tests be used in evaluations. But no, it doesn’t require they be the only assessments factored in. Under federal guidelines, as long as the state test is one factor, school districts can also use “alternative measures of student learning and performance such as student results on pre-tests, end-of-course tests, and objective performance-based assessments; student learning objectives; student performance on English language proficiency assessments; and other measures of student achievement that are rigorous and comparable across schools within a (school district).”

Myth 3: This is unfair to teachers in high-poverty schools because everyone knows those students don’t do as well as students in the rich schools.

Truth: Without giving up on students and teachers in struggling schools, many of whom are doing tremendous work, a good evaluation system should use assessments that measure student growth between two points in time. A good evaluation system, therefore, rewards gains by a student even if that student still falls below grade level. All of this is encouraged under the current state system and federal rules.

Myth 4: We should do what California did and just say no. Then districts like Tacoma and Seattle that rely heavily on Title I money for programs that help struggling high-poverty students can apply for separate waivers like Los Angeles and San Francisco did.

Truth: California, like Washington, sought a waiver from the penalties under No Child Left Behind. Unlike Washington, it never passed a law requiring that student growth data be a factor in evaluations and therefore already saw its waiver request denied. To be like California, Washington would have to undo the 2012 bill that passed 46-3 in the Senate and 82-16 in the House and that is currently being implemented statewide.

Only because California’s waiver request was rejected did the large districts that rely heavily on Title I money seek separate waivers. While those were granted, California is now under two systems with different rules and standards, making an already complicated accountability system even more so.

Myth 5: The state keeps changing the rules.

Truth: First, factoring in the state assessments into current evaluation systems that already employ multiple measures of student growth is not as big a change as is being claimed. And while it seems the rules have changed, that is only because the Legislature and Gregoire kept trying to do less than what the Department of Education has clearly said is necessary, beginning in 2009 in the Race To The Top competition and again in 2012 with NCLB waivers.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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