5 big questions for the Iowa Council on Educator Development

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The Iowa Council on Educator Development meets tomorrow for the first time. This is the statewide group that is supposed to make recommendations to the Iowa legislature about how to better evaluate teachers and school administrators. Given many of the practical and policy insanities that have occurred in other states around this issue – massive swings from year to year in individual teachers’ ratings, educators evaluated by test scores of students they didn’t teach, Teachers of the Year being rated unsatisfactory, teachers being evaluated by student assessments for which there is yet no curriculum / teacher training, etc. – this will be important, highly-visible, and highly-controversial work. Members of the Council include teachers, principals, professors, educator association staff, Department of Education personnel, and, yes, the state director for the Iowa chapter of Students First (whom for some reason the Department of Education insists on referring to primarily as a ‘parent’ rather than her professional role).

As I think about the work ahead for this group and the changes that it may recommend, five big questions come to mind that will need resolution…

  1. First and foremost, will the purpose of any changes in our current educator evaluation systems be for educator improvement or for educator ‘accountability?’ The primary philosophical orientation of any proposed changes is paramount and will shape all other conversations, decisions, and design considerations. For instance, systems designed for educator improvement won’t be punitive; will focus on educator learning, growth, and remediation; will be less consequential to teachers’ incomes, employment, and reputations (i.e., lower stakes rather than high stakes); and will do everything possible to minimize year-to-year volatility and unreliability because they’re focused on an ethic of care, not on perspectives of shame, blame, or disdain.
  2. Iowa revised its educator evaluation systems just a few years ago to give educators much better feedback on their performance. Are there big flaws in those recently-changed systems that warrant major new changes?
  3. When teacher differences only account for about 10% of the variance in student achievement, will this statewide committee work on educator evaluations (and potential policy/funding changes) be placed in proper context given other potential legislative actions?
  4. If, as I don’t hope, the Council decides – despite an overwhelming wealth of statistical, policy, and legal reasons against such systems - that educator evaluation in Iowa should be changed so that it is high stakes AND that student statewide assessment scores should be a component of such a system, how will we remedy the deficiencies that have resulted in other states related to operational unreliability, massive unfairness, legal concerns, and a lack of confidence in the accuracy and validity of resultant educator ratings? In other words, can we identify states or districts who are actually doing this in ways that work? (and, if not, are we somehow smarter than every other state that’s tried this?) If the Council goes down this path, issues that will arise include year-to-year volatility of test scores and educator ratings, inappropriate uses of assessments and statistics that are designed for purposes other than educator evaluation, the lack of standardized statewide assessments for most students, inherent systemic biases of so-called ‘value-added’ systems against educators that work in particular settings, long-term impacts on the perceived desirability of education as a profession (and thus educator supply), Constitutional equal protection and due process rights, etc.
  5. If, as I hope, whatever changes the Council may recommend are focused on educator improvement rather than ‘accountability,’ will we be able to get the federal government to approve them? And if we can’t, it is more harmful to Iowa education to stay with the current NCLB scheme or receive a NCLB waiver? In other words – when both options have serious consequences, substantial drawbacks, and significant negative impacts on students, educators, and communities – whom are we willing to sacrifice and what will be our moral, ethical, professional, and legal justifications?

This work is going to be difficult and complex. What other big questions do you think the Council will have to address?

Image credit: Iowa flag, Chuck Thompson

2 Responses to “5 big questions for the Iowa Council on Educator Development”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Scott. I’m glad to see teacher prep included on the board. We’re having some strange conversations about student teachers with some of the districts–that is, are student teachers “ready to teach” when they student teach; or are student teachers ready to be mentored into the developmental process of teaching? It’s probably clear that we see evaluation as formative and see our supervisors (who see the student teachers in their classrooms at least once a week) as “coaches.” And, most importantly, we see a great amount of growth and improvement in a few short weeks WHEN student teachers and their mentors know the is about the process, not the product, of teaching. It’s pretty cool when a student teacher says, “I tried what we talked about last time and it really worked.”

  2. A bit of a tangent:

    As an educator, I am definitely in favor of paying teachers more money, however I think it’s important to point out working conditions are more important to teachers than pay.

    “Recently, Public Agenda (2000) reported the results of telephone interviews with a random sample of 664 teachers, all in their first 5 years of teaching. Despite widely held beliefs about teachers’ dissatisfaction with their work, these researchers found that more than two thirds of their respondents said that they got “a lot of satisfaction from teaching” (p. 9), and three fourths viewed teaching as “a lifelong choice” (p. 11), this despite the fact that three fourths also reported that they were “seriously underpaid” (p. 18). If given the choice between a school where they could earn a significantly higher salary and a school with better working conditions (such as well-behaved students and supportive parents, administrators who backed teachers, effective colleagues, or a mission they believed in), Public Agenda respondents consistently said that they would choose the school with better working conditions, by a margin of 3 to 1 (p. 46).”

    -Johnson and Birkeland “Pursuing a Sense of Success: New Teachers Explain Their Career Decisions,” AERA Journal, 2003, pp. 586-587

    You read it right…working conditions trump salary. I’m not sure how evaluations play into teacher working conditions, but I think it’s a point worth keeping in mind.

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