What Obamacare, ‘Supplemental Services,’ and Teacher Evaluations Have in Common

By 10/23/2013

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As a born optimist, I don’t generally enjoy being “against” reforms. This sometimes makes playing the role of gadfly challenging. If only I had the curmudgeonly qualities of Checker Finn, my mentor and boss, it would be so much easier. (Even Rick Hess, for all of his straight talk and fun-loving, bare-kneed exploits, is much more the natural cynic.)

So it brings me no pleasure to predict, as I have on multiple occasions, that the project to create rigorous teacher evaluations by fiat is likely to fail. But read this passage within a recent post by Megan McArdle (on Republican states actively working to torpedo ObamaCare implementation), and see if it rings alarm bells for you, too:

Obamacare is in jeopardy, and Democrats are casting around for a way to blame this on Republicans. The answer they have settled on: It’s their fault because Republican governors did not set up exchanges.

Think about what they are actually saying: “We passed a law that was so incredibly fragile that it was destined to fail unless all the state governments controlled by the party that opposed this law worked hard to make the system a success.”


As anyone who has ever implemented a new program (corporate or government) can tell you, one of the biggest hurdles is getting people who don’t care about your program, or who actively oppose it, to make their piece work. Even if they’re trying in good faith, they have neither your enthusiasm nor your deep grasp of the internal logic. In the best-case scenario, it’s not their No. 1 priority; when it competes for resources with stuff they really care about, it tends to get the second-string people and budget. This is one reason that promising pilot projects often fail when they’re rolled out to the larger organization—and one of the most important things that a corporate innovator has to do is to evangelize his program so that other departments get as enthusiastic as he is.

The challenge with teacher-evaluation reform is that design and implementation matter enormously. And in the end, it comes down to superintendents, their staff and school-level principals to make it work. But what if those folks “don’t care” about differentiating teacher performance, “actively oppose it,” or have “neither your enthusiasm nor your deep grasp of the internal logic”? What if school districts, for instance, go through the motions but still rate virtually every teacher as effective? Are we really surprised?

That’s why my interpretation of the new D.C. IMPACT evaluation skews closer to Rick’s than to Andy Smarick’s. I wish Andy were right that the great outcomes in Washington meant that teacher-evaluation reform will succeed elsewhere. But to me that’s like saying that the incredible results from the (tiny and expensive) Perry Preschool program prove that a low-dollar, statewide universal-preschool initiatives will be a smashing success. In other words, that’s a huge stretch.

It’s always tempting to force stuff we like on states, districts, or schools via mandates, but it doesn’t usually work. As was the case with “supplemental services” (free tutoring) under NCLB, which I just told the New York Times was an “unmitigated disaster” which “no amount of tweaking” could fix. That’s because of a fatal flaw in the design of the (well-intentioned) program. It asked school districts to do something they didn’t want to do—in fact, something they had an incentive not to do: Allow up to 20 percent of their Title I allocations to flow from their coffers to private companies.

So guess what happened? Many districts actively worked to torpedo the initiative. They didn’t advertise the availability of tutoring to parents. They dragged their feet on signing contracts with providers. They refused to let companies tutor kids on school grounds. When it comes to resisting federal or state mandates, it turns out that local officials are skilled and practiced experts.

Back to teacher evaluations. Let me be clear: It would be great if every big city in America adopted a program like IMPACT. But if we want IMPACT-level quality and thoughtfulness nationwide, we have to work city by city for D.C.-style reform, which took a fresh political dynamic created by a massive charter school sector; a new, fearless mayor; a major governance overhaul; a cage-busting leader; a helpful state superintendent; and a supportive business and philanthropic community. Piece of cake, right? But as we tell our students, there are no shortcuts.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • Jay P. Greene says:

    In these pages two years ago, Stuart Buck and I suggested that merit pay was not a promising reform strategy because it would likely be blocked, diluted, or co-opted. Looks like Mike agrees. http://educationnext.org/blocked-diluted-and-co-opted/

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Great outcomes for IMPACT? Did I miss something? From what I read, people scrambled to be rated higher, but there’s no real evidence that their teaching or student learning improved. (and the comment below helps to parse the difference between the two)

    And for Jay: Decades of research have found that performance pay does not improve performance in complex professions such as teaching, and the reasons for this have to do with the idea itself, not with it being blocked or co-opted. 1) Extrinsic motivators are generally inferior to intrinsic and internalized motivations for sustained excellence at complex learning and complex performances. 2) As with the way in which multiple choice tests render true subject matter excellence unrecognizable, these pay-for-performance schemes always have to reduce excellence to some small number of proxies for excellence itself. People scramble to perform these proxies if their job is on the line or is a big bonus is within reach, but the range of things that really make up overall excellence get left behind.

  • Geoff Barrett says:

    Mike, I haven’t researched the failure of the tutoring program under NCLB, but I can say that I participated in it. I didn’t directly observe what you describe. Schools seemed to actively pursue tutors, I think I worked for a group called A+, and get them set up with a room. Several students were assigned to me, but if I didn’t get to the school in time (I was already teaching full time) to corral them, they would slip out with the masses. I did not have access to any achievement data on the students and mostly knew only what they were working on in class if they happened to still have their handouts crumpled up somewhere in the backpacks. Usually, I had to wing it and figure out some common ground between the ever changing group that would show up for the weekly session. My observation is that it was a program that was poorly thought out, lacked any direct connections to where the students were progress-wise, and did not have any research to support the idea that it would work.

    I agree with some of this post, but I think the comparisons you try to make ultimately fail. And ditto what Karl says on merit pay.

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