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Feds Say Oregon’s Leadership on Teacher Quality is ‘High-Risk’.'  Are They Right?

Recently, the Federal government told education leaders in Oregon it’s sticking with its warning, first issued this past August, that Oregon is at ‘high risk’ of having our state’s ESEA waiver revoked. 

When Oregon first applied for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law and its most punitive provisions, a condition for approval was a commitment to implement teacher evaluations in every school in the state and for student growth to be a significant factor in these evaluations

Oregon’s strategy to pilot evaluation systems through active collaboration and leadership of teachers and administrators, consistent with our state’s evaluation law, won the blessing of the US Department of Education.  With strong urging from OEA, the 2012-13 school year was established as a year for select schools – teachers and principals – across Oregon to pilot different approaches to evaluation and student growth.

Some Oregon schools opted to weight student growth as a percentage in a teacher’s overall evaluation. This model provides for educators setting student learning and growth goals, including goals based on growth in student standardized test scores.  Other schools developed and implemented an alternative model, known as the Matrix, which directly connects educators’ goals for student growth to targeted professional learning and instructional improvement.

In compliance with the feds, both models use student growth data.  Both evaluate teacher performance based on the same national standards for exemplary teaching.  Both result in a summative performance rating for each teacher.  And this school year is the first year all schools in Oregon will implement new evaluation systems using one of these models.

So why are the feds threatening to revoke Oregon’s waiver?  In her Nov. 25 letter to the Oregon Department of Education, Assistant US Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle wrote, “[Oregon] has not met the condition for approval for an ESEA flexibility waiver…to adopt a method for including student growth in its teacher and principal evaluation and support systems...”  The state has until May 1 to correct course.

What does this mean?  Oregon is certainly not lagging behind in implementing new evaluation systems which use measures of student learning and growth.  The US Department of Education is simply holding firm to its requirement that the state mandate a single student growth model used by all schools and districts. 

The Federal government’s admonishment came on the heels of Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton asking for Oregon’s ‘high-risk’ status be reconsidered and in support of school and educator-led innovation and flexibility to support professional growth of teachers and principals.

To be clear, the negotiation between Oregon and the federal government is ongoing.

The leadership and voices of teachers and school leaders will be critical if Oregon wants to chart its own path forward in making sure evaluation and support systems work for better teaching and learning and student success.

Local school district evaluation design teams, notably those like Beaverton, North Clackamas, Oregon City, Ashland, and South Lane school districts who’ve adopted the alternative Matrix model, should not be deterred from continuing implementation of these successful systems.

The stakes are high.  Looking at other states and districts who have won final approval of their waivers, the feds have demonstrated a preference for student standardized test scores being weighted anywhere from 20% to 50% or higher within an evaluation.

There are a number of well-documented problems with this approach, especially when a high-percentage is assigned to high stakes tests that are then tied to high stakes evaluation decisions.  As Rick Stiggins, a longtime national expert in student assessment, wrote in The Oregonian earlier this year, standardized tests just aren’t that accurate or necessarily appropriate to judge good teaching and learning. 

As a matter of good practice and policy, Stiggins strongly urges both Oregon and Washington to challenge the federal government’s demands around use of standardized tests in evaluation.

You can do the same. 

Take a moment to join OEA in thanking Rob Saxton for fighting for Oregon’s leadership on teaching and learning, and getting evaluations right.

And feel free to send us your comments and questions about professional growth and evaluation. OEA’s Center for Great Public Schools is here to empower educators to lead the way.