While most states still need to improve their teacher policies, including how teachers are evaluated and compensated, there has been a significant and positive shift in policies for most states, according to a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.
In its seventh annual State Teacher Policy Yearbook, the organization gave states an overall grade of C- for state laws, rules and regulations that are intended to shape teacher effectiveness, such as standards for how teachers are prepared, evaluated and rewarded.
Although still not a top mark, that evaluation is up from a grade of D+ in 2011 and from a D in 2009. Topping the list in 2013 was Florida with a grade of B+, followed by Louisiana, Rhode Island and Tennessee, which all received B's.
"The grades of the states that are at the top of the list have really gone up quite dramatically in the last few years," says Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director for state policy at NCTQ. "We've seen a real shift in policy. When we first started doing this work, most states were closer to the bottom of the pack."
But as more states start to make strides in improving their teacher policies, Jacobs says there has been an increasing gap between the states at the top and bottom of the rankings. Montana, for example, has consistently received an F score in the NCTQ report. Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming also have not made notable progress in recent years, according to the report.
Among states that have made changes, the report points out a "seismic shift" in policies relating to teacher evaluation systems. In 2013, for example, 28 states required annual evaluations of all teachers, compared with 15 in 2009. And many more states – 35 in 2013 – are requiring "significant or preponderant use" of student growth data in those evaluations.
Student growth measures are increasingly being tied to outcomes for teachers, including whether they receive tenure, or whether they get fired.
Additionally, 20 states now require that student performance be included as a factor in decisions on granting teachers tenure. Twenty-nine states now mandate that teacher ineffectiveness is grounds for dismissal, and 18 use teacher performance information in layoff decisions.
Many teacher advocates have condemned the use of "value-added" models in teacher evaluations. Such models attempt to measure a teacher's contribution to student growth by comparing the test scores of a particular teacher's students to past years, as well as to other students in the same grade.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association – the top-ranked state's teachers union – said Florida teachers "will be surprised" to learn the state is so highly ranked in teacher policies.
"Teachers here feel overwhelmed and they don't think that the radical transformation of the teaching profession imposed by political and business leaders is an accurate reflection of what is needed in the classroom," Pudlow says.
Pudlow says Florida's value-added model, which accounts for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation, is seen by teachers "as a joke."
"There is little trust in a complicated [value-added] formula that is difficult to understand and doesn't account for some measures that have an impact on student success," Pudlow says. "The reform movement and its corporate funders may love these kinds of ratings, but teachers are more than a little skeptical."
Jacobs says that although evidence of student learning should be an important part of teacher evaluations, it shouldn't be the only factor used.
"We think systems need to have multiple measures that give you different views of teacher performance," she says. "Of the systems we see around the country, many, many states have moved to bring student achievement into teacher evaluation, but we don't see any state that is requiring or developing a system where that would be the sole measure."
While examining other state policies related to teachers, such as preparation, Jacobs also noted an increase in the number of states requiring elementary teacher candidates to pass subject-matter tests that independently measure a teacher's knowledge in certain subjects.
Previously, tests at the elementary level produced one composite score, meaning teachers could fail certain subjects but still pass the test overall, Jacobs says.
"This is a huge step forward that states have taken into now saying, 'We're not going to let that happen anymore,'" Jacobs says. "Elementary teachers have to know math and they have to know reading and they have to know English language arts. But we're not going to just let them pass on a composite score."
Still, Jacobs says there were several points of concern that came up during the state policy analysis. Nearly all states, for example, set what the NCTQ says are low academic bars for teachers.
"Whether measured by a test or GPA, academic requirements established by states for admission to teacher preparation are weak or non-existent," the report says.
Jacobs says that may be the result of a changing pool of teacher candidates, rather than the bar being set lower over time.
"Maybe there wasn't a need for this kind of academic benchmarking in the past," Jacobs says. "But there seems to be now, where we know we're drawing from the bottom half of the college-going population instead of the top half."
According to an Educational Testing Service report, many teacher candidates tend to have lower SAT scores compared with students pursuing other majors. The report quotes earlier research that says researchers "do not mean to imply in any way" that those who perform well on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT "will automatically make good teachers" and vice versa, but there exists no other widely available data to compare candidates' academic qualities.
Additionally, a 2010 report from McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm, says the United States "attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes" – a classification also based off of SAT and ACT scores.
Anthony Cody, co-founder of The Network for Public Education, says he has "serious concerns" with the statistic describing the pool of teacher candidates, particularly because test scores also tend to be correlated with race and socioeconomic background.
"If we decide that we are going to eliminate the bottom third of SAT scorers from our pool of potential teachers, we are going to bias our selection of teachers towards those who are better at taking tests," Cody says. "We are going to bias our selection away from other factors. This will place even more obstacles in the way of college graduates who are from disadvantaged groups."
Still, Jacobs says considering a candidate's academic background is an important factor.
"We're certainly not saying it should be the only thing," Jacobs says. "We're just saying it seems a mistake to not look at the academic background."
Another troubling point was that there appears to be a loophole in many states through which some early childhood teachers also can teach certain elementary grades – without an additional license, Jacobs says.
Many states, she says, have early childhood "pre-K-2" or "pre-K-3" licenses that allow teachers to instruct at both levels without separate testing and approvals for each.
"Many of the states haven't put the same strong requirements that they have for the elementary license for the early childhood license, even though it means you are going to teach the same subject matter in the same grades," Jacobs says. "We want that third-grade teacher to really know her math, whether she's on an elementary license or an early childhood license."
Finally, Jacobs says the lack of specialization for special education teacher licenses is "a real soapbox issue." According to the report, more than half of states only offer a K-12 certification in special education, "requiring no specialization by subject or any level of elementary or secondary education."
Jacobs says that lack of specialization represents a "very outdated view of special education."
"We expect these students to meet the same standards as typical students," Jacobs says. "And if the teachers don't have the content knowledge, if we're not making any differentiation between an elementary special education teacher and a secondary special education teacher, how are students going to meet these standards?"