In the middle of the overheated health-care battle, President Obama took some time out yesterday to highlight education reform in an interview with The Washington Post. The occasion is the official roll-out of the "Race to the Top" program, in which states will compete for $4.35 billion in federal grants intended to spur education "innovation." Passed as part of the stimulus, Race to the Top has garnered an inordinate amount of attention from the administration, considering it accounts for just a tiny drop in the bucket of Education Department spending. Only eight to 12 states are expected to win grants.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has indicated that the development of teacher performance-pay models will be one focus of the program. He has promised not to judge teachers' solely on their students' test scores but has otherwise been vague about what a good performance-pay model would look like. In the Post interview, the president provided some more specificity, saying he would like to assess teachers based on their ability to improve their students' aptitude levels over the course of a year. He does not say what role test scores would play in such teacher assessments, but it does seem that scores would be the primary way to measure student progress by "grade level," as he suggests:
...this is something that I had to talk to teachers about all throughout the campaign and when I was a U.S. senator. What I say is you're absolutely right it would be unfair if we set the same standard for kids in Anacostia and kids in Georgetown, and without any additional resources, any additional help, we penalized the kids who are much further behind and reward those who are coming out of middle-class homes and already doing well.
The answer to that is, let's measure progress. That we can measure. So what we can say is that if a kid comes in and they gain two grade levels during the course of that single year, even if they're still a little behind the national average, that tells us that school is doing a good job. And that's just one example of how I think you can address legitimate concerns on the part of teachers while at the same time not watering down standards, and still maintaining a link between high-quality teaching and the compensation that teachers receive.
In just a few minutes I'll be tweeting a conference call with Arne Duncan, in which he'll be speaking about Race to the Top. Follow me!