Opinion: California needs ‘Race to the Top’ funds

October 28, 2009

The ‘Race to the Top’ fund is too advantageous to ignore, the state’s Board of Education president says. That means tying teacher evaluation to student performance, and that’s a good idea.

September 15, 2009 — California soon must decide whether to make dramatic changes and lead the nation in education reform or — if it can’t or won’t change — be dragged along as other states show what bold change looks like. That’s the message U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered to a California audience this summer.

Duncan challenged California to do away with a 2006 law that prohibits the state from using student performance data in evaluating teachers on a statewide basis. A few local districts do evaluate teachers using their students’ test scores; Los Angeles Unified is not among them.

The stakes grew much higher in July when Duncan announced that states with such “firewalls” would be barred from vying for a share of the $4-billion federal “Race to the Top” fund, the largest competitive education fund in U.S. history, unless they changed their laws. The resulting national controversy, framed as a test of wills between the Obama administration and the most populous state, has generated plenty of heat.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a special session of the Legislature that ends Oct. 5 to sweep away the 2006 law and other potential impediments to California’s application for Race to the Top money.

There must be a truly new, bold approach to education in this state, and eliminating the firewall is a good first step toward that end.

No doubt it came as news to most Californians that such a firewall even exists, and for many, it makes as much sense as it would if my daughter’s teacher were required to assign her grades without looking at her papers, tests and homework. As a recent report from the The New Teacher Project makes clear, this firewall contributes to a perverse situation in which teachers are treated as widgets, neither rewarded nor supported because the performance of one cannot be distinguished from another. It’s hard to think of another field that would tolerate such an arrangement. Indeed, good teachers want and deserve to be recognized for what they’re doing well, and to receive help where they are struggling.

Yet in recent weeks, leaders in our school systems and teachers unions have declared that breaching the firewall is a political nonstarter because of fears of state centralization of teacher evaluations, privacy and other concerns. And insiders have argued about whether changes in the law are necessary for local districts to use student data in evaluations.

These are distractions. Teacher contracts and performance evaluations are now and will remain local responsibilities, and data safeguards are easily constructed. The firewall should come down, now. But to address the spirit of Race to the Top as well as its stated requirements, we must address the real question here: Should the professional evaluation of a teacher be based, at least in part, on measurements of how much students are learning?

The answer is, and must be, yes.

Does saying yes mean, as some opponents of such a policy argue, that teacher evaluations should be based simply on standardized test scores? Of course not. President Obama and Duncan have said that teachers should not be judged solely on student scores. State education leaders from both sides of the aisle in California agree. Teacher effectiveness is not a one-dimensional question.

The good news is that districts such as Long Beach and Garden Grove are successfully using student performance data as part of robust and multifaceted evaluations of their teachers. The largest and most successful of Los Angeles’ charter school organizations are planning to incorporate student performance into their teacher evaluation, development and promotion systems as early as next year.

Any useful system of evaluation, including these bold California initiatives, will have measures of student performance and progress along with other important indicators of teacher effectiveness. The latter should include classroom observation by trained administrators and peers, evaluation of teacher work and recognition of the special challenges teachers and students in our most affected schools face. Such systems would allow districts and schools to recognize exceptional teaching and share best practices, help teachers develop skills in areas of weakness and, yes, help identify teachers who ought to leave the profession.

Although critics are right to say we have substantial work to do to improve our measures of student progress, they are quite wrong if they claim we can afford to wait until we have perfect assessments before we start down this road. Intentionally blinding ourselves to teachers’ effectiveness cannot be the right answer.

Saying yes will require difficult changes. True leadership in this moment means actively piloting systems that connect the work of teachers to the progress of students in smart, thoughtful ways. Any other choice means accepting a different firewall — one that stands between California’s children and hundreds of millions of dollars in desperately needed federal funds, and between our children and the future they deserve.

Ted Mitchell is President of the California State Board of Education and Chief Executive Officer of NewSchools Venture Fund.