President Barack Obama seemed to give a nod to both supporters and opponents of test-based teacher evaluations in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“Teachers matter,” he said. “So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”
Obama said a good teacher “can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” a reference to a recent study by economists at Harvard and Columbia, who concluded that effective teachers have a long-lasting positive impact on the life prospects of their students.
Here’s the problem. Most of the proposals to “reward the best” and “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn” rely on student test scores to determine which teachers are effective. The administration has pushed that approach through its Race to the Top grants and, more recently, through waivers to No Child Left Behind Act requirements. It’s the entire premise behind the economists’ study that Obama cited.
As Dana Goldstein writes in the Nation, “It can be difficult to balance test-based accountability with the sort of ‘creative, passionate’ teaching the president says he supports, especially if teachers are so worried about raising test scores that they teach-to-the-test or — as we’ve unfortunately seen around the country — cheat, or are pressured by administrators to do so.”
Of course, it’s easy to bash teaching to the test; almost as easy as bashing teachers. Let’s just say this: Starting this spring, Indiana students will be retained in third grade if they don’t pass the new test called IREAD-3. Let’s hope third-grade teachers are teaching students the skills they need to pass that test.
The president didn’t describe any new programs to improve teaching, and the blueprint released by the White House with the speech was similarly vague. It calls for reforming teacher education, creating career ladders, tying earnings to performance, reshaping tenure and improving accountability. It also says the administration wants to give teachers professional development, time for collaboration, and classroom autonomy – important goals! – but doesn’t say how to do that.
Obama also called on states to require students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18, although it’s not clear if the feds would do anything to compel the states to comply with this idea. Indiana does require attendance to age 18, but allows 16- and 17-year-olds to drop out for health or economic hardship reasons, with the permission of a parent and the school principal.
More on the Big Study
Harvard professor John Friedman, one of the authors of the Obama-cited study on the impact of good teachers, responded to criticism by Bruce Baker, and Baker prints the response in its entirety at his School Finance 101 blog. If you’re following the debate over the study and its implications, the exchange is worth reading.
Friedman says his and co-author Raj Chetty’s “fire first, ask questions later” quotes were used out of context in a New York Times article. He points to their subsequent Times Room for Debate piece as a better representation of their views on the policy implications of the study.