The complicated process by which policy makes its way into law is often referred to as “insider baseball”. It might be confusing and often boring, and it certainly won’t get big headlines, but it shouldn’t ever be overlooked. Effective insider baseball wins lots of ball games.
Case in point: Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign an important teacher evaluation bill into law this Thursday. That marks the end of a four-year struggle to put into place a tough, results-oriented system of rating teacher performance that focuses on how much kids actually learn. It’s a big step toward improving Michigan schools that are now ranked 41st in the nation in reading and well below the national average in math for fourth and eighth grades, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Here’s the inside story of how that happened.
Surprise! Study after study shows that teachers have the biggest role within the school’s walls on student learning. Kids learn much, much better if they have good teachers. But before the Legislature started looking at teacher evaluation in 2011, some districts hadn’t looked at teacher effectiveness in years. In many districts, the process consisted of a principal dropping by classrooms for a few minutes and ticking boxes on a checklist. Virtually all teachers were rated “effective,” even while Michigan students were falling behind others around the country.
In 2011, the Michigan Legislature passed teacher tenure and evaluation reforms. But the bill set up a very general evaluation system, with the important details to be worked out later. “Later” took two years, when finally a group of education experts, led by widely respected University of Michigan School of Education Dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball, submitted its recommendations to the Legislature in 2013.
The subject drew bipartisan interest, particularly from state representative Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) and now-Senator Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage), who pulled together an unlikely coalition of teacher unions and charter school organizations. Their bill almost made it into law in December 2014, but was halted by Senate Education Committee Chairman, Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair), who felt it gave up too much control to the state Department of Education.
Sen. Pavlov introduced his own bill this spring. It loosened the rigorous statewide standards recommended by Dean Ball’s team of experts, based on his belief that local school districts should have more control than the state in deciding how their teachers should be evaluated. The bill also ran counter to the findings of the Center for Michigan’s community conversations, as published in “The Public Agenda for Public Education” and “The smartest kids in the nation”, a series of articles published in Bridge Magazine. Pavlov’s bill passed the Senate in May and looked as though it was going to sail through the House without much trouble.
At which point, insider baseball became the core of the game.
House Education Committee chairwoman Amanda Price (R-Holland) had quiet doubts about Pavlov’s bill, but faced an upward haul against a measure that had already passed the Senate. Rep. Zemke, the minority vice chairman of Price’s committee, worked tirelessly with Sen. O’Brien in pointing out that a patchwork of loose valuation systems is worse than no system at all. Gov. Snyder’s chief education advisor, Karen McPhee, the former superintendent of the Ottawa County Intermediate School District, began to have second thoughts about Sen. Pavlov’s bill and indicated the Administration’s skepticism in testimony before Rep. Price’s committee.
Dean Ball, who was troubled that the legislature was ignoring her expert task force’s proposals, weighed in, together with Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust – Midwest, who was firm in calling for tougher standards. The business community, including Business Leaders for Michigan, expressed concern about poor teaching resulting in poorly prepared workers. And as the tide began to turn, even education groups and teachers unions that had previously supported minimalist reforms changed position.
A much stronger and now bipartisan teacher evaluation bill last month passed by wide margins both the House and the Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor this Thursday. The bill will subject approximately 100,000 Michigan teachers to evaluations based on student academic improvement as measured by test scores and on classroom observations by principals and others trained to observe teaching performance. The policy calls for four ratings: highly effective, effective, partially effective and ineffective. Teachers rated as “ineffective” three years running will lose their jobs.
“The most important element to a child’s education inside a school building is a teacher,” says Rep. Zemke. “Teachers can’t be successful without good support.” Michigan’s new teacher evaluation is “soooo much better than where we were,” Dean Ball says, adding, “This is an area that states are all having trouble with. It’s a step forward in a state that could exercise some real leadership.” Sen. O’Brien says, “Now that we have an evaluation system that sets criteria for a quality evaluation system and student growth tools, we can focus on student learning.”
That will be a long process, especially since Michigan schools that used to be ranked among the best in the country have been losing ground for years. “We are building a system to hold teachers accountable and training evaluators on how to evaluate and the Department of Education is developing a delivery plan – and all that work has to be done simultaneously,” says Ed Trust’s Arellano.
That, in turn, will require plenty of insider baseball. But that’s how many important things get accomplished around here.