Federal demands to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores have been at the center of ongoing negotiations over Texas’ request for a reprieve from the No Child Left Behind Act.
Negotiations with federal education officials continued Tuesday after the state bolstered its plan late last week to meet some of the demands of the U.S. Department of Education, which has already granted waiversto 41 other states and Washington, D.C.
The outcome of the talks matters to the 85 percent of Texas school districts that would be deemed failing under federal standards that require more than 90 percent of students to pass the state’s standardized tests in reading and math. Next year, 100 percent of students must pass.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams denied that Texas’ revised plan cedes to the conditions that the federal officials laid out for states to get the waiver. But one of those conditions — tying teacher evaluations to student achievement — has been a major sticking point.
Williams maintains that he lacks the authority to enforce such a requirement in every school district but is willing to create a voluntary system.
“We’re going to do it in a way that recognizes and respects the capacity of local districts to make the determination. They’re going to develop their plans,” Williams said in an interview with the American-Statesman.
Teacher groups, however, say they are concerned the state could end up agreeing to the same federal strings that prompted them to eschew past Obama administration initiatives, such as Race to the Top, a $4 billion competitive grant program.
“We are now seeing other states that did apply for Race to the Top struggle under these onerous, expensive, and unworkable requirements,” said Holly Eaton, director of professional development and advocacy at the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.
States, for instance, do not have student testing data for about 80 percent of educators, such as first-grade teachers whose students do not yet take state exams. But the federal requirements call for those teachers to be evaluated in part upon the test data.
Eaton added that Texas lawmakers considered but did not enact legislation this year that would have included student test scores as part of the teacher’s evaluation. Teacher groups say test scores are a limited measure of a teacher’s work and research has called into the question the validity of teacher assessments based on student test scores.
“There was a fair amount of skepticism on their (lawmakers’) part, particularly in light of the strong push to reduce high-stakes testing in this state,” Eaton said.
No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s domestic policy agenda, passed in 2001 with a provision that the law be revisited in 2007. But Congress still hasn’t taken action and competing proposals for revising the law suggest it isn’t going to change anytime soon.
There is broad agreement that the law is badly outdated. But without congressional action, the only way out from under the law is a waiver granted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Some experts argue that Duncan overstepped his legal authority by attaching conditions, such as the teacher evaluation requirements, to the waivers because they are are only tenuously connected to the law’s original intent.
“They are moving forward claiming authority that they simply don’t have,” said Michael Petrilli, an executive vice president at the Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank in Washington.
“I was hoping Texas might sue,” said Petrilli, who served in Bush’s Education Department. “Come on, Texas. Where’d your fight go?”
When Williams became commissioner a year ago, he announced that Texas would pursue a waiver from the federal education law but refused to accept Duncan’s conditions, such as implementing the teacher evaluation process.
Williams and a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry insist that Texas’ position has not changed.
“Texas has consistently said that we would consider all options that would give the state and districts flexibility,” spokesman Josh Havens said. “In this case, TEA has requested and is working toward an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education on a general waiver that allows Texas to stay true to our principles of local control and higher accountability for both our students and our teachers.”