What Defenders of Teacher Evaluation Reform Still Get Wrong

Back in June, Rick Hess, who writes about education stuff and works for some think tank (I think), wrote an article called 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Gates Foundation’s $575 Effective Teacher Initiative. After summarizing the epic scope of the failure and the ludicrous price tag, Hess attempts to resuscitate teacher evaluation and compensation reform by defending the initiative’s goals and blaming, as education policy advocates are wont to do, implementation problems for the overall failure.

Hess writes:

“While it may be tempting to regard the RAND evaluation as closing the book on another oversold education reform, doing so would be a mistake. There’s much that can and should be learned from the exercise, especially given that the core idea makes good, intuitive sense—however problematically it was executed.”

Let me suggest an alternative conclusion:

The RAND evaluation makes clear that yet another oversold education reform failed to solve the problem it set out to and created a set of unintended consequences that harmed teachers and, by extension, education as a whole. There’s one thing that can be learned from the exercise and that is regardless of how intuitive a solution might be, the implementation of drastic changes inside complex systems will always be difficult and will always lead to outcomes we cannot predict, many of which will be bad and make things worse than they were.

Hess details five lessons we are to learn from the abject failure of tinkering with things best left alone, presumably so the next billionaire who wants to upend American education can fail less spectacularly.

First, Hess says that the reforms demanded too much time and paperwork. So I guess future reformers should design ways to expedite the process of getting rid of teachers they don’t like. Principals shouldn’t have to actually observe and document things. Due process is for suckers. I’m surprised Hess didn’t advocate for principals using their gut instincts and asking teachers to clear out their rooms by the end of the day.

Hess also points the finger at principals who wouldn’t rate teachers low enough. This is a favorite criticism of education reformers. It’s not that teachers are any good; it’s that principals are too weak to label them as bad as they really are. Instead of believing principals who work with their teachers every day, we’re supposed to believe people in think tanks looking at spreadsheets.

Hess admits that changes to teacher pay failed to attract new candidates to the profession or entice teachers to change where or how they work. Duh. That this couldn’t be predicted by those who advocated for the changes reveals a distressingly large blind spot. Let me spell it out: People who go into education don’t do it for the money. They are not motivated by the same things people who enter the corporate world are. Therefore, dangling incentive pay and saying you want to reward good teachers with more money is not going to attract the kind of people we actually want in classrooms. Investment bankers, it should go without saying, would not make good second-grade teachers. Similarly, offering combat pay to teachers to go to low-performing schools will never work as long as those teachers are going to be evaluated in the same way every other teacher is evaluated.  It doesn’t matter how large an incentive you accept if you don’t get to keep your job.

Hess ends by telling us that none of the failures in the report means that teacher evaluation reforms don’t work, even though that’s exactly what the RAND evaluation concluded. Rather, he says, “it’s complicated” and hard to do. In a nutshell, Hess argues that we should still do this thing that failed, we should just figure out how to do it better, which can, of course, be said about every failure ever.

One wonders if Hess believes the same thing about Prohibition, which, like teacher evaluation reform, could also be considered a “core idea that makes good, intuitive sense.” The Bay of Pigs wasn’t a bad idea; it was just more complicated and harder to do than people thought. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something similar in the future!

When initiatives fail because they’re hard to implement, we should wonder: If this idea is so hard to get right, then maybe the idea itself is a bad one.

The lesson that should be learned from Bill Gates’s ill-fated teacher evaluation reforms is that reforming teacher evaluations is really hard to do without making things worse than they are and that anyone looking to follow in his footsteps ought to be a lot more careful about where they walk. They might even decide to walk on a completely different path altogether.

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