Duncan Talks Federal Teacher Policy

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 01, 2009 3 min read
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The Education Week news staff had a sit-down with Education Secretary Arne Duncan yesterday where he had a lot of news to deliver about his vision for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Alyson Klein has a news story here and Michele McNeil gives a more general overview of the main touchstones that emerged from the meeting at Politics K12.

But being the loudmouth I am, I got to sneak in a couple of teacher-related questions and Duncan had some pretty interesting things to say.

One thing I asked about was what the administration would like to do with the $3 billion state teacher-grant formula program, which is in Title II of the ESEA. After all, we all make a big deal about the $4 billion in Race to the Top, but ED puts out $3 billion every year through this funding stream. Most of it supports class-size reduction and professional development, but we really know very little about how effective those activities are.

I was impressed by how well Duncan appears to knows his stuff on this part of the law, which is surprisingly low profile given its size. He thinks the money spent on professional development could be better tracked to ensure that it has an impact on student learning. He questioned whether reducing class sizes by just a few students, as has been reported anecdotally under Title II, represents a breakthrough in teacher quality. “if you’re going to do something, do it” by reducing classes from, say, 26 to 15 students, he said. (That, it so happens, is much better aligned with what the best research says about class-size reduction.)

All in all, Duncan thinks the funding should be reworked to provide more bang for the buck: “Anyone who’d argue you’re getting great value for that $3 billion, I’d love to see that analysis,” he said.

He also said it’s a possibility that Title II might be tweaked to include a competitive piece, which seems to be an overall theme of his vision for the ESEA. No surprise there, as that approach seems to be working for the Race to the Top Fund. As Duncan put it, states are making changes to their laws “not because people love us; it’s because there’s a competition.”

There are some major roadblocks to making these kinds of changes to Title II, not the least of which is that every state and most districts get funds for this program under the current formula. Changing it would almost certainly mean some losers. That’s not exactly an easy thing to sell to lawmakers.

I also asked Duncan whether the upcoming competition for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which supports performance-pay programs, would require grantees to collectively bargain the terms of the grants with local unions. (This is a wonky but important issue; you can read the background on it here and here.)

Duncan said he didn’t have an answer about this yet. But he added, in what I’d consider to be his strongest remarks on this theme, that successful compensation programs don’t just have symbolic teacher buy-in, but bear the stamp of teacher involvement in the way they have been crafted.

That leads me to believe that if, even if there isn’t a collective bargaining requirement in the next iteration of TIF, there probably will be some kind of structure by which these plans get formally vetted by teachers. One possible model for that is to require a 75 percent teacher-approval vote, as is the case in most Teacher Advancement Program schools.

Duncan clearly takes the TIF program seriously: “The best thing the previous administration did was the Teacher Incentive Fund.”

Duncan reiterated his concerns about teacher evaluation, saying the systems are “broken” and that new ones should use “multiple measures” for judging teachers. He also talked a lot about Louisiana’s system for tracking graduates of teacher-preparation programs and making changes in them based on the results. (I very helpfully told Arne to add Teacher Beat to his RSS feed, since as I’ve pointed out, Florida and Texas are next in line to do this work.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.