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Supervisors Opinion

Race to the Top or to the Bottom?

Overhauling teacher evaluation systems has the potential to undo some of the good work of past reforms.
Secretary Arne Duncan is using a $4.35 billion incentive to entice states to overhaul teacher evaluation systems and pay scales in order to receive federal funding.

The education community has rightly identified teacher quality as the key factor in improving student achievement. Most people would now agree that students must have top quality teachers if students are to reach their potential. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) made teacher quality and accountability central in the debate on education. However, NCLB mandated improvement in student achievement as measured by state-selected standardized tests, and it added HQT (highly qualified teacher) to the educational alphabet soup, but it did not go far enough in making individual teachers accountable for student achievement.

The Race to the Top fund, however, has added a new twist. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are using a $4.35 billion incentive to entice states to overhaul teacher evaluation systems and pay scales in order to receive federal funding. This has had a seismic impact on the debate on teacher quality and teacher evaluation. State legislatures across the country have hastily ushered in new legislation to make their application for Race to the Top funds more competitive. The tighter the link between teacher evaluation and student test scores, the more points you win for your application for federal funds.

Collective Bargaining and Teacher Evaluation

But here is the big problem with Race to the Top in practice. Even if you subscribe to the general notion that teachers should be evaluated based on the performance of their students—a commonsense idea— teachers seem to be against it. As most states have collective bargaining laws, teacher evaluation is subject to collective bargaining. Therefore, no matter what the federal government says, or what state legislators demand, evaluation based on student test scores will not happen unless teacher unions agree to it.

The National Education Association has come out strongly against Race to the Top. The NEA rightly points out that politically motivated legislators are setting criteria for how much student test scores should weigh into the calculation of a teacher’s effectiveness. Politicians are not qualified to make this professional determination, and the measures are arbitrary. Teachers rightly ask how a 30 percent benchmark in California or a 50 percent benchmark in Colorado has any grounding in research, or is supported by any kind of empirical data. In fact, the higher benchmark is set in order to curry favor with the federal government and win more points in the application process.

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, has argued for increased accountability for public schools. In a May 25 blog post called “Just Say No to Race to the Top,” however, she stated that although supervisors should take test scores into account when evaluating teachers, they shouldn’t use a “fixed percentage, determined arbitrarily by legislators.” She went on to state that the “issue of how to evaluate teachers should be resolved by professional associations working in concert, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and other professional groups. Why should such an important issue be determined by political negotiation rather than by professional standards?”

In talking to teachers about Race to the Top, I have found that many are demoralized. As practitioners, they really want their students to succeed, and most want their colleagues to work hard and help students succeed. They even agree that those who don’t pull their weight should be given support and direction, and if they continue to fail their students, should leave the profession. They don’t trust Race to the Top, however, and will negotiate from a very defensive posture when the subject comes up in collective bargaining.

Standardized Tests and Teacher Evaluation

Many teachers see problems with data gathered from standardized tests, as they have used this data to try to improve student learning for the past 10 years or more. Many teachers embrace the use of data to improve student learning and many are experts in using data to guide instruction. Individual teachers, the NEA and others have expressed concerns about using the current state accountability systems to evaluate teachers. Standardized tests that capture student achievement in a “moment in time” snapshot at the end of a school year are not designed to evaluate teacher effectiveness. They measure student achievement in a multiple-choice format and have reliability and validity tolerances established for that purpose. The correlations made from data garnered from these sources lose reliability when applied to measuring the impact of the teacher in causing these scores.

These tests do not take into account any of the following:

  • The impact of previous teachers on test scores, both positively and negatively.
  • Achievement not measured by tests, like writing and critical thinking.
  • Growth in nonacademic subjects, like art and music.
  • The amount of learning that takes place between the date the test is administered and the end of the school year.

As most of these tests are administered once at the end of a school year, there is no way to accurately measure the growth students make with the teacher assigned for that year. For example, growth is measured from year to year—from May in one year to May in the next, for example, with two different teachers. In addition, these two tests measure different content. It is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Kids are not assessed at the beginning of the year to establish a benchmark from which growth can be measured for that year only.

Teachers rightly point out that Race to the Top has the potential to undo some of the good work of past reforms. Many schools cluster gifted students in one classroom, or English language learners, or special education students, in order to deliver specially designed instruction. Will teachers now seek the best test scorers and an equal distribution of the lowest test scorers when classes are formed each September? This will make it difficult for schools to group students according to their instructional needs.


I think most would agree that the current system of teacher evaluation would be improved by considering the achievement of the students under a teacher’s care. Just how student achievement becomes a factor in teacher evaluations should be decided at a national level by professionals qualified to make that determination, however, not by legislators.

Teachers should be a part of the process, as collective bargaining laws make them key players in implementing evaluation processes in each state and individual district. Standardized-test scores have a role to play, but current “snapshot” data should be modified to include growth models that measure improvements in student achievement captured at various points in the academic year. Assessments should be expanded beyond narrow standardized tests to include writing and thinking, too.

And finally, administrators should be trained in how to effectively measure teacher quality. Race to the Top has started the ball rolling, and has potential. But in the haste to effect change, key players like teachers may have been left at the starting gate.

Eamonn O’Donovan is a former principal and an assistant superintendent of human resources in southern California.