R-E-S-P-E-C-T-ing Teachers?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took to The Daily Show Thursday night to discuss and defend his agency's latest initiative: Project RESPECT. The project looks a lot like 2009's Race to the Top, a chance for states (and in this case school districts) to compete for big grants if they offer ideas that conform to the department's priorities. But unlike Race to the Top, RESPECT is almost entirely focused on teachers and teacher evaluation. It's not likely the Republican-controlled Congress will fund the $5 billion program, which is part of the the president's budget proposal, but the initiative does offer a clearer sense of the department's priorities.

The plan emphasizes a need for higher salaries for teachers, but also pushes to reform job protections like teacher tenure and improving teaching colleges to make them more selective. If a state chooses not to compete, districts can apply for funds on their own or in concert. As Bloomberg News reports:

The Obama administration began a push to tie teacher pay to performance instead of seniority, dangling a proposed $5 billion in incentives for U.S. states and districts that embrace the president’s approach.

The grant program, part of Obama’s $69.8 billion education—budget proposal for fiscal 2013, seeks to revamp tenure practices at elementary and secondary schools to make it easier to weed out underperformers and raise pay to attract top college graduates to the teaching profession

On the Daily Show, Duncan painted a glowing picture of the new project as a chance to reward teachers. Host Jon Stewart, with an audience that seemed to be made up of teachers, didn't let Duncan off the hook easily. "What you're describing doesn't seem to be matching their experience," he told the secretary of education. Not shockingly, Duncan stuck to his guns and defended the program. Merit pay, teacher tenure, and the like never came up in a big way.

The RESPECT project seems to be a sequel to the administration's Race to the Top effort. Race to the Top, which has already awarded the vast majority of its $4 billion in grants, identified priorities and then assigned points to applying states based on which criteria they met. Many state legislatures opted to change policy to become more competitive. Among the priorities were policies to create a favorable environment for charter schools and adoption of "common core" curriculum standards—an effort Duncan has vocally supported. To compete at all, states had to allow student performance data to be linked to teachers. Linking allows for "value added" modeling, statistical models to show a teacher's impact on test scores. The practice is controversial with teachers and has recently come under academic scrutiny.

This time around, Duncan has talked about judging teachers by more than just test performance. "It's not just about testing," he told Stewart. "You have to look at multiple measures." In his talk introducing RESPECT, Duncan mentioned "classroom observation, peer review, parent and student feedback" as all useful in examining teacher assessment. But the goal is clearly to get away from seniority as a key determinant in how much teachers make and whether they have job security. 

The project's priorities are extremely similar to those of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested tens of millions in efforts to better evaluate teachers. (The Gates Foundation worked closely with Duncan when he headed Chicago's public schools and also helped finance the development of the core curriculum effort.) However the Gates Foundation is very controversial among teachers groups for its emphasis on throwing out teacher protections like tenure. In his talk announcing the project, Duncan referred to two Gates-funded groups, Teach Plus and the New Teachers Project, as expected partners. Teach Plus got a $4 million grant from Gates in 2009 while the New Teachers Project has received more than $15 million since 2007. 

New York Times article last year highlighted just how active such groups have been in trying to reform teaching by campaigning for an end to traditional teacher protections like seniority.

To that end, the foundation is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.

In 2009, a Gates-financed group, the New Teacher Project, issued an influential report detailing how existing evaluation systems tended to give high ratings to nearly all teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited it repeatedly and wrote rules into the federal Race to the Top grant competition encouraging states to overhaul those systems. Then a string of Gates-backed nonprofit groups worked to promote legislation across the country: at least 20 states, including New York, are now designing new evaluation systems.

It will be fascinating to see if the program can garner enough support to be politically viable. Duncan will need the thumbs up from teachers' unions, and so far the groups have been tepidly supportive. Teachers have come under significant pressure as state lawmakers have slashed funding for education, all the while expecting performance to improve. Teachers unions have pushed for teacher evaluations based on multiple factors rather than just tests, much like Duncan described. But Duncan is also allied with groups perceived to be hostile to teacher's unions. But without their support—and with a highly partisan Congress—it's hard to see how the program will come through. I suppose, as usual, it's best to keep watching. 


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