Is doing less harm enough for Duncan?

​Earlier today Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a slight—yet potentially significant—shift in his stance on teacher evaluation. Duncan extended an offer of flexibility to states, a one-year delay in implementing evaluation systems that would tie teacher performance to test results.

This is a good thing. And it could be the beginning of a great thing.

Admittedly, it has taken Duncan far too long to heed educators’ concerns about new evaluation systems reliant on tests not yet aligned with new college- and career-ready standards. Yes, teachers need more time to fine-tune their instruction in line with the new standards. Yes, any test involved in holding a teacher accountable must be fair, reliable, accurate, and well-aligned with the standards it measures.

And yes, when expert teachers raise sound objections to policies governing teaching and learning, decision makers have a responsibility to take them seriously.

But despite the dawdling, I am glad that Duncan is acknowledging the need for accountability systems to be reasonable, accurate, and responsible. And that he has now vowed a continued commitment to working in concert with educators to approach this policy goal sensibly.

So, what next? How can his administration ensure that evaluation systems actually fulfill their intended role of improving teacher effectiveness? Here are some teacher evaluation facts (based on researchers’ findings) and relevant next steps for the Duncan administration:

Fact: The “value-added” statistical techniques that are part of many states’ systems to assess teachers’ effectiveness in improving student achievement are extremely unstable.

  • Next step: The federal government could spread best practices for evaluation found in top-performing nations like Singapore where trained observers use professional judgment—not rigid, formulaic statistical modes—in assessing how teachers support the whole child and spread their teaching expertise.

Fact: Teachers rarely receive usable and timely feedback from the value-added data that are used to judge them.

  • Next step: Second, the USDOE could help to ensure that evaluation systems are useful by encouraging states to implement serious peer review systems that give teachers information and support that help them improve throughout the school year. A number of school districts in the U.S.—including Montgomery County (MD) as well as Poway Unified and San Juan Unified school districts (CA)—have implemented such systems effectively.

Fact: Teachers do not have access to high-quality professional development found in top-performing nations— and they have very little time needed to work with their colleagues in improving teaching and learning.

  • Next step: The USDOE should maximize its new Teach to Lead initiative—inviting accomplished teachers to create and lead professional learning systems that spread expertise to improve student outcomes. (Example: Check out some of teacherpreneur Ali Wright’s ideas for her home state of Kentucky.) Evaluation systems can contribute to teaching quality—but they are useless if teachers don’t have access to time and high-quality opportunities to learn and improve throughout their careers.

As a result of today’s announcement, Duncan’s administration will certainly do less harm than might otherwise be the case. But will they do what’s right to improve teaching effectiveness for the long haul? That much remains to be seen.