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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and Teacher Evaluations

While the pros and cons of The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed by President Obama last month are still being debated, ESSA’s passage is certain to have major implications for teacher evaluation systems across the country.

No longer will the feds have any role in defining what constitutes a “qualified teacher,” one of the most controversial aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 that ESSA replaces. This means that states and schools are free to establish their own criteria for evaluating teacher performance and determine what, if any, other factors should be considered in addition to standardized student assessments.

ESSA keeps in place federal testing schedules and requirements and will continue to hold states and schools accountable for student achievement. However, the new law returns power to States in determining the weight of those federally-mandated tests in evaluating teacher performance. Even before the passage of ESSA, no states relied on student achievement alone in teacher evaluation, and the majority of states have been granted waivers that release them from certain portions of NCLB since 2009.

More than forty states already require or recommend teachers be evaluated on multiple measures as a more complete and accurate gauge of performance, while every state requires or recommends classroom observation at least once a year. In other states, however, disagreements over the inclusion and role of non-academic and non-cognitive measures have been at the center of contentious debate.

ESSA still requires states to set long- and short-term student achievement goals, and schools will necessarily have to find ways of hiring and retaining teachers who effectively help students reach those goals. While failing schools will still be identified and subject to federal intervention, schools where students achieve the targeted goals will once again have the freedom to determine what defines quality teaching in their classrooms.

In many cases, the fight between schools and the federal government will simply relocate to state legislatures. Few states relinquish the responsibility for developing teacher evaluation systems entirely to local districts and most schools would like more freedom in determining teacher evaluation processes. Most experts are warning schools and states to proceed cautiously as the full effects of ESSA unfold over the next year before implementing wide-ranging changes to teacher evaluations.