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Senate appears unlikely to push for test-based teacher evaluations in revised law

Washington Post
January 27, 2015

By Emma Brown

The Senate continued its most serious effort to date to rewrite the education law known as No Child Left Behind with a hearing Tuesday that focused on improving the nation’s teachers.

Lawmakers from both parties indicated that they would not seek to continue the Obama administration’s push to link teacher evaluations and teacher pay to student test scores. Republicans said they don’t believe Washington should issue such directives to the states.

“Finding a way to fairly reward better teaching is the Holy Grail of K-12 education, but Washington will get the best long-term result by creating an environment in which states and communities are encouraged, not ordered, to evaluate teachers,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is leading the rewrite effort as chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she believes in evaluating teachers, but she said she was concerned about giving tests too much weight.

“On evaluations, I believe we should have ways to measure how educators are doing to make sure that students do have access to high-quality teachers,” she said. “But I am wary of using them as the sole factor in setting salaries or using testing as the sole indicator in an evaluation. There is just so much more going into teaching than test scores.”

No Child Left Behind expanded the federal role in U.S. education in 2002, most notably by requiring annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school. The law also included measures aimed at improving teachers, including a grant program for professional development and a requirement that teachers be “highly qualified” in each core subject area they teach.

No Child did not prescribe how states should approach teacher evaluations. But the Obama administration offered Race to the Top grants and waivers from the most onerous provisions of No Child to those states that agreed to adopt certain policies, including merit pay and evaluations that incorporated student test scores.

Alexander’s draft revision does not prescribe how states should design teacher evaluations, and it says the U.S. education secretary may have no role in approving state-level teacher evaluations. His proposal does away with the “highly qualified teacher” requirement, which has been widely criticized as a bureaucratic measure that did little to ensure excellent teaching.

Alexander’s proposal also would expand funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which gives states and school districts money to design their own pay-for-performance systems. And it would give states much more flexibility in how they use $2.5 billion in federal funds meant for teacher and principal training.

That flexibility would be extensive: States would not have to use the money for teacher training or improving teaching at all and could instead use it for a range of other purposes. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was sharply critical of that idea, saying the flexible approach was “not a responsible use of federal tax dollars.”

“We keep asking more and more and more of our teachers, but this Republican draft proposal doesn’t do a single thing to make sure that states will actually use this federal money to help teachers do their jobs,” Warren said.

No Child Left Behind expired eight years ago, and Congress has been unable to reach an agreement to revise it, largely because of the underlying disagreement about the proper role of the federal government.

Nowhere is that tension more obvious than in debate about testing. The Obama administration, congressional Democrats and many civil rights groups are pushing to maintain No Child’s annual testing requirement despite pushback from many parents, teachers and conservative lawmakers.

Though Tuesday’s hearing was focused on teachers, discussion returned repeatedly to the testing issue.

One witness, education researcher Dan Goldhaber, implored lawmakers to keep the annual testing requirement, arguing that it is a powerful tool for measuring teachers’ effectiveness.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked witnesses how schools could reduce testing and still get the information they need about student achievement.

“I hear repeatedly about the burden of the testing and accountability system in the classroom,” Whitehouse said. “It’s at the stage now where it’s actually impeding the ability of teachers to teach.”