In a February 20, 2012 New York Times article entitled, “States Try to Fix Quirks in Teacher Evaluations,” Tennessee’s new teacher evaluations figured prominently. The Times reporter traveled across TN, interviewing state leaders, principals, teachers – all who described the promise, pitfalls, and potential to improve teacher quality with an evaluation framework that expands dramatically the scale and scope of classroom observations. Insightful quotes from these key stakeholders pointed to three critical issues of agreement: the value of authentic and reliable teacher quality measures; the clear and compelling connection between teacher quality and student learning, and the deep and widespread interest in getting it right while all are on board – teachers (and their unions), principals, state leaders and parents. Daniel Weisberg, executive vice president at The New Teacher Project noted: “If you don’t solve the problem of teacher quality, you will continue to have an achievement gap.” He applauded states’ efforts to “start the process somewhere.” While Grover Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. Dept of Education official, sounded more a bit more cautious. His quote should give TN leaders some pause: “There’s a lot we don’t know about how to evaluate teachers reliably and how to use that information to improve instruction and learning.” Uh oh.

This is what we know. It’s a good idea to rethink and re-do the way teachers are evaluated. Many good things can happen as a consequence of Race to the Top and TN’s new teacher evaluation system – related to fairness, efficiency, excellence, and accountability. But we should also keep our keen eyes on ways teachers are innovative, not necessarily uniform, in the ways they reach, teach, encourage and engage students. Indeed, Emily Barton, assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction at the Tennessee Department of Education, observed that TN’s untested and still-evolving system “is leading to rich conversations about instruction and that teacher performance is improving.” Good thing. In the meantime…

Let’s not take our eye off the larger and more penetrating, system-wide reforms that need to take place simultaneously with these teacher evaluation reforms. Think in terms of a pipeline (early childhood education through college access and persistence). See an excellent and still the go-to-report on this topic: Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations, Stanford University Bridge Project Policy Brief (click policy brief at top of the page).

To punctuate my point, I want to return to a research study that we completed 10 years ago, and which was recently highlighted (again) last December in a NY Times education column. Here’s the history lesson and back-story. The immensely impressive student achievement in Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools – they serve the children of military personnel who live on U.S. military bases (e.g., Ft. Campbell, Ft. Bragg, Camp LeJeune) — sparked the interest and attention of the National Education Goals Panel. NEGP asked researchers at Peabody College to unpack the reasons for school success and minority student achievement (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams) in DoDEA schools.
What’s important is what we found in these high performing, high poverty schools:

  • Centralized direction setting with local decision-making
  • Policy coherence and regular data flow regarding instructional goals
  • Sufficient financial resources linked to instructionally relevant strategic goals
  • Professional development that is role-embedded, intensive, sustained, relevant to school improvement goals
  • Small class size
  • Academic focus and high expectations for all students
  • Continuity of care in high quality pre-schools and after-school programs
  • “Corporate” commitment to public education and parents

(The report is available on-line)

Peabody College Professor Joseph Murphy’s recent book, The Educator’s Handbook for Understanding and Closing Achievement Gaps (2009), highlights many of these elements in his review of the research on the achievement gap and the role of school and social reforms.

We have always noted some serious differences (and notable similarities) between these DoDEA schools and other public schools. First, take the fact that at least one parent is employed among DoDEA families – though in stressful and often dangerous war zone assignments. Mobility is high; students and their military families move often to other military installations, sometimes overseas to Europe or South Korea. Housing is safe and improving in quality beyond traditional public housing; neighborhoods are stable. Access to health care is reasonable. That said, I reiterate these findings of a strong education system to simply reframe the debate of school improvement beyond the narrow confines of a hastily revised teacher evaluation system. The point here is to think a bit more globally (we will turn to the limited lessons of Finland on another blog) or systemically, more coherent and connected than all of the Race to the Top puzzle pieces (that now seem a bit scattered across various stakeholders, though this is not meant as a critique of RTT).

Just think about it. Read the NEGP report and let me know what you think. BTW, the teacher unions are quite strong in the DoDEA system; the teacher evaluation system is solid. But that’s another story for another day or blog.