Did the Gates-funded initiative to alter how teachers get evaluated in three school districts and four charter networks between 2009-2016, fail?
A local newspaper and the RAND corporation’s independent evaluation reached similar conclusions when it came to achieving the goals of improving low-income minority students’ test scores. Both concluded that the project did not meet that goal. New policies of identifying effective teachers and having those teachers work with low-income minority students also failed to yield the promised outcomes of the donor initiative. The dominant criterion used to judge “success” and “failure in U.S. public schools for the past generation has been effectiveness, that is, were the goals of the project achieved? Yes or no. Up or down. A binary answer. Using this criterion, the initiative failed.
Yet–frequent readers of this blog know that a “yet” or “but” soon arrives–there is evidence of a mixed verdict on the “success” and “failure” of IPET. Consider the following points:
*With Gates prior funding of research on measures of teaching effectiveness, support of the Obama administration, and school districts and charter networks eager to take the money and put these ideas into practice, the process part of IPET policymaking was clearly a political “success.” IPET mobilized federal, state, and local officials to consider the project and then adopt it with accompanying funding. A donor’s huge grant to school districts and charter networks converged with federal policies. That’s no easy task and it happened.
*And the IPET program was a political success. It is clear that the federally-funded Race to the Top’s inclusion of teachers being evaluated through test scores and the Gates grant for IPET persuaded many states to pass legislation, prod local districts, and provide resources for school systems to alter their traditional ways of evaluating teachers. Over 40 states, varying as they do in their evaluation requirements, still put these programs on the radar screens of local districts and these districts, over time, have worked out varied ways of enacting different forms of teacher evaluation. A fair person could conclude that such fallout from the initiative makes IPET a precarious “success” teetering on the edge of “failure. Since data continue to come in from states and districts on what is occurring in schools, what may be down the road insofar as teacher evaluation remains unclear.
*Another political success occurred during and after the IPET initiative. Grasping multiple threads that make up policy making, influential and richly funded political coalitions came together to support government intervention to get teacher accountability for student outcomes. States and districts chose to adopt and implement particular policies. And repercussions vibrated within school districts where teachers and principals were expected to implement these policies while outside schools parents and community organizations sought and acquired private resources to press teachers to be held responsible for student performance. All of these are political actions occurring in the wake of adopting teacher evaluation policies relying on student test scores. These political facts cannot be avoided or side-stepped because they do not neatly fit into the binary conclusion policy analysts and elites would prefer to use of “success” or “failure”.
Yes, at the end of the project, student outcomes fell short of what donors and districts wanted. Yes, few low-income minority students got to be taught by those teachers rated effective. These results do matter when they appeared. However, were another independent evaluator to enter the schools participating in IPET in 2021, five years after the project ended, would the results be the same. Probably yes, but possibly no.
Some reforms require more time as policies permeate organizations. Think of the Gates funded Small Schools Project (2000-2009) that the donors stopped because academic achievement and graduation rates failed to improve yet after the money went away, later evaluators found that high school graduation rates had actually increased over time in those schools that were part of the small schools initiative.
So it may be for IPET. The strong push to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes persisted in state laws. Moreover, many districts scrambled to gain teacher support of using test scores by having multiple measures including principal observation and peer evaluation (see here and here)
In considering the political repercussions of IPET and state-driven teacher-accountability reforms, the picture is not one of unvarnished “failure” but a mixed one. depending on which criteria are used to make judgments, partial “successes” salted with visible “failures” doesn’t fit neatly into an absolute judgment of “success” or “failure.”
What is far better, as Allan McConnell suggests, is a spectrum that runs from: “program success, resilient success, conflicted success, precarious success.” Program “failure,” insofar as degree of implementation of program objectives, how much of desired outcomes were achieved, distribution of benefits to target group, and presence or absence of opposition to program becomes again a mixed picture. In short, policy and program outcomes are cluttered. Making judgments is untidy rather than neat when it comes to policy being put into practice and the rippling political consequences of implementing programs. IPET is an example of that untidiness in making judgments about “success” and “failure.”
The final post of this series looks at the role of donors in a democracy when they plow huge amounts of cash into such initiatives and shape national reforms. For the U.S. system provides tax subsidies to philanthropists through allowing them tax-exempt status and there are no ways now to hold foundations accountable for their actions.