The Half-Finished Revolution on Teacher Quality

How the Obama Administration’s efforts to boost teacher quality benefited both students and teachers.

In a growing number of states, public schools are doing more to identify and reward their best teachers.

In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, the city’s best-performing public school teachers now also serve as peer evaluators, mentors or lead teachers – positions that also carry more prestige and better pay. In Tennessee, a group of high-performing teachers have been appointed as “Core Coaches” to help lead the introduction of the Common Core State Standards to the state. In the District of Columbia, teachers can advance through a five-step career ladder – from “teacher” to “expert” – with each step carrying greater professional rewards and responsibilities.

But as late as 2009, says the National Council on Teacher Quality, few states had the ability to evaluate their public school teachers and pinpoint who excelled and who did not. Only 15 states in 2009 carried out formal performance reviews of public school teachers – today, it’s nearly all. This new capacity, argues a new report, is just one of the many benefits of the Obama Administration’s efforts to improve teacher quality in public schools – an initiative that Congress may have ended prematurely.

In a new study from Georgetown University’s Center on the Future of American Education, author and center director Thomas Toch argues that the Administration’s aggressive early efforts around teacher quality produced a number of successes worth preserving, including measurable improvements in instructional quality. But perhaps most significantly, Toch says, these reforms have catalyzed what could ultimately become a long-needed effort to professionalize the career of teaching. “The transformation in teacher evaluation has put teaching … on the path to becoming a far more vibrant, performance-driven profession,” writes Toch.

Beginning in 2011, the Department of Education offered states flexibility from the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in exchange for establishing formal teacher evaluation systems tied to gains in student achievement. “When great teachers are unrecognized and unrewarded, when struggling teachers are unsupported, and when failing teachers are unaddressed, the teaching profession is damaged,” then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the National Education Association.

By 2015, almost every state in the country was evaluating teacher performance, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. And in nearly half of states, these evaluations helped determine such key decisions as tenure, pay, and promotion – which no state was doing six years earlier.

The creation of these evaluation systems led to a number of ancillary benefits for students and schools, Toch says. For example, many states for the first time established clear standards of learning for students and teachers. In the District of Columbia, for instance, the launch of the IMPACT teacher-rating system in 2009 helped set “explicit instructional expectations for the first time in the District’s history,” says Toch.

Moreover, Toch argues, the demands of implementing a formal review system required principals to spend more time on instructional quality in the classroom, rather than on operational details such as bus schedules and the mechanics of running a school building. In Tennessee, for example, the state increased the pace of teacher performance reviews from just twice per decade per teacher to an average of four times per year. As a result, Toch reports, the state carried out nearly 300,000 classroom observations in 2011-12, compared to just 20,000 visits the year before.

Toch also notes that the teacher quality movement itself has undergone a sea change of its own, shifting its attention from punishing bad teachers to rewarding good ones. In its early years, the movement’s focus was to find and fire ineffective teachers – a sentiment epitomized by an infamous 2008 TIME magazine cover featuring a broom-wielding Michelle Rhee, then Chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools. Since then, Toch says, reformers and educators have both come to realize “that the nation can’t simply fire its way to a strong teaching force.”

“[W]hat started as an accountability-driven attempt to remove bad teachers from
the profession,” Toch writes, is evolving in some states into new systems that “help teachers improve their practice through the sorts of systematic feedback they say they want but rarely get in public education.”

Teachers – including those once resistant to evaluation – are beginning to appreciate the benefits of these changes, Toch says. In Tennessee, for example, 68 percent of teachers said in 2015 that they believed the state’s new evaluation system was improving the quality of teaching, versus just 38 percent who said the same in 2012.

Nevertheless, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act – the successor to NCLB – late last year, it also effectively repudiated the Obama Administration’s prior efforts around teacher quality.

The legislation not only ended federal incentives for teacher evaluation but banned the Secretary of Education from even advocating the measurement of teacher performance – provisions that earned the praise of organizations such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Nonetheless, Toch argues that the new focus on rewarding excellence could lead to a second revolution in teacher quality – one that ultimately wins the support of teachers’ unions such as the AFT.

Writes Toch: “The increasing use of evaluation results to help teachers improve rather than merely reward or remove them, as well as the deepening involvement of teachers in some states and districts in the planning and implementation of reforms, may make it easier for teacher unions to embrace the reforms as a way to create more professional working environments for their members and strengthen the teaching profession.”

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.