R.I.'s Race to the Top Plan Tackles Teacher Assignment

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 12, 2010 2 min read
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The lovely three feet of snow we just got hit with in D.C. gave me the opportunity to drink tea and snuggle up with a bunch of Race to the Top applications. (I’m sure my fondness for wonky policy bears no relationship to the fact that I’m still single.)

As many of you know, the Race to the Top guidelines put a premium on using teacher-evaluation systems to determine teacher effectiveness and to use it for decisions involving tenure, compensation, promotion, professional development and dismissal. A number of the applications, including those submitted by Louisiana, Indiana, Florida and Rhode Island would make student-achievement growth worth at least half of a teacher’s evaluation. (In R.I.'s case it will actually be 51 percent of the evaluation.)

But fewer states explicitly tackled the issue of teacher distribution or assignments, and by that I mean where and how effective teachers are placed. This is where Rhode Island’s plan really stands out for its specificity. In it, the state says that it will direct districts not to allow a student to be taught by more than one year by a teacher deemed “ineffective,” and will prohibit districts from assigning ineffective teachers to low-income, low-performing or high-minority schools.

I know of almost no extant examples of a policy that would resemble this one. Probably the closest is the Aspen Commission’s 2007 recommendations, which suggested barring teachers that were deemed ineffective based on teacher-effect data for seven years running from working in Title I schools. That proposal went over like a lead balloon with the teachers’ unions.

Since then, though, the dots have been lining up in Rhode Island for this kind of proposal. State Commissioner Deborah Gist was already in the midst of trying to end assignments based on seniority, following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Peter McWalters, who’d targeted Providence schools Both efforts ran afoul of teachers’ unions—in Gist’s case, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, and in McWalters’ case, the Providence Teachers’ Union.

But even though the unions have fought some of the collective-bargaining implications to these staffing changes, they apparently see opportunities in the Race to the Top program. The Providence Teachers’ Union ultimately decided to sign onto the state’s Race to the Top application, and was backed by the state union in doing so.

This is difficult, fraught policymaking, and both sides deserve credit for the work. But there’s a long way to go.

Is the state a shoo-in for funding? Not necessarily. Gist took some heat for phasing in the 51 percent evaluation figure over several years and for allowing educators five years to demonstrate effectiveness for recertification.

Photo: Rhode Island Commissioner Deborah A. Gist

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