Can Baby Steps Win the Race To The Top?

November 9, 2009 | Blog

It looks like the state of Wisconsin may become the canary in the coal mine with regard to data firewalls and the Race to the Top (RttT) competition. Last week, the State Legislature passed legislation, signed today by the Governor, that theoretically removes Wisconsin’s statutory firewall restricting the use of student achievement data in teacher evaluations. I say theoretically because the bill prevents student test data from being used to discipline or dismiss teachers. And it requires that any changes to teacher evaluation systems be bargained separately in each of the state’s 426 school districts.

A quote (included in the Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial criticizing the legislation) from John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, is damning:

“The language that’s being presented is more interested in protecting teachers,” Ashley said. “It doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of what the secretary and the president were talking about.”

It seems like the state made the fewest number of changes possible to at least try to create the appearance of reform without actually guaranteeing any real reform will take place. Perhaps it was done with legislative vote counting in mind. Perhaps it was done due to an honest disagreement with the teacher evaluation requirement of RttT. Perhaps it was done because the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) — the state teacher’s union — likely would have opposed greater changes and its support was needed to get Democratic votes. The biggest cynics might say that the state is guilty of racing to the trough, chasing money without abandoning the status quo, and that WEAC could decide to recommend that its locals oppose ANY use of student achievement data in teacher evaluation.

Personally, I am not opposed to evaluation being subject to collective bargaining. Getting teachers’ buy-in to any evaluation system and, even more ideally, jointly designing a system with teachers is preferable to subjecting them to an undesired one. At the same time, I believe that student learning must come into play as one of multiple factors in teacher evaluation and that states are the appropriate actors to draw that line in the sand. This, too, is what the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed RttT regulations require. Wisconsin’s bill does not guarantee it. What would have made this bill meaningful would have been the inclusion of an affirmative requirement (a ‘shall’ rather than a ‘may’) that student learning be a factor in teacher evaluation. To not go that far statutorily suggests that Wisconsin’s baby steps may not help it reach the Top.

The Education Department will soon have its say when it evaluates the first round of RttT applications in early 2010. Final RttT regulations could be issued as early as mid-week.

See Teacher Beat’s post here. (Great seeing Stephen at APPAM in DC last week!)

See background from the Education Optimists here, here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE (Wisconsin State Journal, 11/10/2009): Let the controversy erupt…

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Claus von Zastrow

    November 9, 2009

    Getting teachers to the table to design a program makes sense, so the success of Wisconsin's language depends on the spirit of those who use it--That's always what happens when you avoid more prescriptive legislation.

    Just last week, I spoke at length with an educator who helped guide her low-income elementary school to near full student proficiency. She was unequivocal about performance pay based on test scores. Her school improved through very strong collaboration among staff. Every student had 3 or 4 staff members attending to him/her every day. Performance pay for individual teachers and imposed by an outside authority would destroy everything she and her colleagues had worked for, she insisted.

    She offered an interesting perspective from someone "in the trenches," as it were. She seemed a good deal less political than practical.

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