POLITICS OF SCHOOL QUALITY: A NATIONAL CONTROVERSY WITH IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHER EVALUATION


The politics of teacher evaluation is largely a matter of local controversy (Kimbrough, 1964). However, one national level political debate concerning education does have implications for teacher evaluation practice. The charge that schools are declining in quality makes a difference in how teachers should be evaluated. For example, a true crisis in quality would call for more use of mandatory techniques, and fewer options for teachers as recommended at this website.


A Nation At Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) began a series of national policy documents that claimed that the performance of U.S. schools was in great decline. The complaints of these influential reports included falling achievement as evidenced by lower standardized test scores, unfavorable international comparisons, and inadequate performance of U.S. public school graduates in the workplace. The role of teachers in these critiques varied, but in no case was the teacher seen as a well functioning, valuable contributor. This negative view of U.S. schools and teachers became generally accepted in the lay public, media, and government (Lind, 1997; Schrag, 1997).


The Sandia Report (Carson, Huelskamp, & Woodall, 1993) was the first academic analysis of the question of school and graduate quality. The findings of this research group were quite unequivocal: the evidence for decline in quality simply does not exist. Rather, the data point to either constant levels, or even slight increase in some subgroups. Other studies began to confirm this more optimistic view (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). Finally, popular journalists began to take up the corrections (Applebome, 1995; Schrag, 1997).


If the critiques of school and teacher quality were not based upon a preponderance of the data, what reasons can be advanced for their sudden and widespread appearance? Lind (1997), a political journalist, called these controversies "an intersection of scholarship and politics" (p. 158), rather than rational analysis. Further, he presented evidence that the "sacrifice of objectivity to political expediency has gone beyond the normal tendency of partisans of all persuasions to stack evidence in favor of policies they prefer" (p. 157). Lind suggested that partisan politics were behind the critiques, rather than scholarly, rational, or objective decision-making politics. For example, the interests of organizations or office-seeking candidates can be advanced by diatribes against public schools. Spring (1997), a political scientist, added that a sense of crisis serves the interests of many points of view in the process of educational policy making. For example, liberals interested in securing more money for schools can use the sense of crisis as justification. Others interested in private schools or vouchers use the claim of crisis as backing for their preferred changes. Table 1 summarizes reasons for partisan critiques of education, rather than objective, scholarly, or rational debate.

TABLE 1 Reasons for "Partisan" Rather than "Objective," "Scholarly," or "Rational" Debate on School Quality
Justify government financial support for private schools where religious
and political expressions can be made (e.g., creationism, prayer)
Acquire votes for candidates of certain political groups, parties
Acquire financial contributions for certain political groups, parties,
organizations
Advocate school control centralization vs. local control
Advocate large scale standardized testing
Emphasize school curriculum for work preparation, international
competition, economic development
Advocate Standards-based education
Sense of crisis important to stimulate educational reform
Sense of crisis important to increase school resources

 

Political debate and decision-making concerning the quality of U.S. schools directly affects teacher evaluation thinking and practice. If schools, and by association their teachers, are declining in quality then emphasis should be given to goals and procedures which halt the erosion. Table 2 shows issues at stake in the debate.


TABLE 2: Differences in Teacher Evaluation if Quality is Declining or Stable

 If Teacher Quality is Declining If Teacher Quality is Stable or Improving

 Goal: Improve teachers

Goal: Identify incompetent teachers

Discriminate among teachers

Reward best teachers

Mandate evaluation practices

 Goal: Document current effectiveness

Goal: Identify incompetent only minor goal

Highlight effective practice

Acknowledge best practices, best evidence

Give teachers choices

The new directions and practices presented on this website assume that teacher quality is either stable or increasing, and that international comparisons generally are equivalent or favorable to the U.S.

Internet Resources for Politics