Federal

House Panel Targets Distribution of Teachers in ESEA, Stimulus

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 02, 2009 5 min read
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Lawmakers and teacher spokesmen had a spirited exchange here last week on the equitable distribution of effective teachers, illuminating the contours of a debate that will likely continue as Congress revisits the issue.

Differing opinions about incentive-pay programs, the role of test scores in pay and evaluation, and how prescriptive the federal government should be in seeking to boost teacher effectiveness were aired at a House hearing. It came as the upcoming renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and implementation of the economic-stimulus law are helping to spur such debate.

Improving the distribution of effective teachers to schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students should be a top federal priority, lawmakers agreed.

“It’s stunning that we’re still discussing this topic with this level of engagement in 2009,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which held the hearing. “This is not a mystery. The fact that these inequities exist is well documented. It’s our role, if Title I [funding] is supposed to meet these needs, to sort this out,” he said of the federal school aid for disadvantaged children.

But the lawmakers also acknowledged widely divergent opinions about how to achieve the goal.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, speaks during a Sept. 30 hearing.

“We are going to have some differences on how to get there,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. “But I think we can work in a bipartisan way.”

The hearing marked the first time the House education committee has turned its attention specifically to issues of teacher quality since efforts to renew the No Child Left Behind Act—the current version of the ESEA—fell apart in 2007.

At the hearing, lawmakers and witnesses appeared to agree that the law’s “highly qualified” teacher requirements should be updated.

“We can’t talk about moving the most effective teachers around without knowing who the most effective teachers are,” said Layla Avila, the vice president of the New Teacher Project’s teaching-fellows program, a New York City-based initiative that prepares career-changers to enter teaching. “We talk a lot about retention, but we don’t even know if we’re retaining the most effective teachers.”

Bipartisanship on TIF?

The testimony generated much discussion from lawmakers about whether teacher equity would be better served by mentoring and induction programs, which have generally been favored by teachers’ unions, or by structural changes to systems for compensating and evaluating teachers. Several representatives also mused aloud about the appropriateness of federal mechanisms for scaling up such work.

“Is that a role for the federal government, to encourage, if not force, every school system to have an appropriate evaluation system in place?” inquired Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., serving as a witness, promoted the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal initiative to seed performance-pay programs.

Although operational since 2006, TIF has never been formally set down in law. Mr. Price, who introduced for the third time last week a bill to formally authorize the program, said his measure would preserve flexibility for districts to craft features in the programs to attract teachers to low-income schools.

“We’ve either mandated things from on high that don’t necessarily result in higher achievement for kids, or haven’t provided the appropriate incentives” for teachers to move to such schools, he said.

TIF, which received $200 million in additional funding in the economic-stimulus law enacted in February, could be one area ripe for bipartisan work.

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association had been an opponent of the program. But in a recent report, the union said that to improve the equitable distribution of teachers, it would support state and local affiliates who partner with districts to create innovative compensation programs, including those that do so with TIF money.

In testimony to the committee, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel added that the union would encourage its local affiliates to “address barriers” to teacher distribution in contracts by writing a “memorandum of understanding” allowing officials to waive contract provisions that prohibit staffing high-needs schools with “great teachers.”

The testimony did not specify seniority provisions, which many administrators say allow more-experienced—and often more-effective—teachers to move to schools with fewer challenges.

Rep. Miller, nonetheless, appeared to view both statements as an affirmative policy shift on the part of the NEA, representing a willingness by the union to renegotiate elements in contracts, and a softening of its opposition to changes in the traditional compensation system.

The testimony is “a very important signal from NEA that represents a significant departure from their historical position,” the committee chairman said.

Mr. Van Roekel did not return requests for a response to Mr. Miller’s stance. Nor was it immediately clear how the NEA would square the new initiatives with internal policy resolutions that eschew certain incentive programs, such as compensation based in whole or part on test scores, or extra pay incentives for hard-to-staff subjects.

Test-Score Controversy

Several issues, including the appropriate use of student test scores in evaluations of teachers, are poised to continue to be controversial. Although the incorporation of the test data has been strongly supported by the Obama administration, a handful of lawmakers expressed concerns that doing so would have a negative impact on disadvantaged students.

Those members included a representative from Nevada, one of four states that maintain a “firewall” between student and teacher data.

“There is a problem that if you just use standardized-test scores, you create a disincentive to teach children with special needs, or children in these low-income schools,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat.

Mr. Van Roekel concurred, saying neither student nor teacher performance should be judged only on the results of a single test.

But Chairman Miller responded strongly to those remarks, noting that administration officials have said test scores should be combined with other measures.

“There is nothing in the Race to the Top that says that a test score would have to be the sole factor in evaluations, so let’s clear the air on that. It’s simply not the fact,” he said of the $4 billion fund that’s part of the economic-stimulus package.

“I think that it’s a real disservice to the administration [to claim otherwise],” Mr. Miller said, “because Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to broaden that discussion.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as House Panel Targets Distribution of Teachers in ESEA, Stimulus

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