Teachers and the Race to the Top Fund

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 24, 2009 3 min read
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If there was any doubt that the Obama administration was going to be aggressive on the teacher-quality front, it was put to rest by the Race to the Top application guidelines released today. Or, to put it another way, “highly qualified” teachers is, like, so 2001. The new federal push is clearly on ways to measure teachers’ effectiveness and create systems to help them improve, all as defined by their performance with students.

You can find the finalized proposed application, along with the proposed applications for Phase II of the federal stimulus funds and the longitudinal-data-systems grants here.

Without further ado, here are what appear to be the key provisions that will affect teachers, unions, and all concerned with our nation’s systems for preparing and deploying teachers.

1. The big news on the stimulus guidance, as colleague Michele “I eat embargoes for breakfast” McNeil writes, is that states like New York, California, and Wisconsin, may be ineligible because of their “data firewalls.”When I wrote about this issue last October, I thought we were maybe a good two to three years away from seriously having to confront it. I was wrong.

There is now news trickling out that California is going to challenge ED’s interpretation, its argument being that the state law only prohibits the state, not school districts, from using the student-achievement data. To that one must ask the question of whether most districts have the data capacity to do this. Wouldn’t it make more sense economically and logistically to use a centralized system?

2. The stimulus application, for the first time, sets a federal definition of teacher effectiveness. Essentially, an effective teacher is one who moves his or her students forward at least one year or grade level’s worth of academic growth. Rotherham thinks this is laying the groundwork for discussions about the No Child Left Behind law renewal.

The application also requires states to have a plan and targets for ensuring that these effective teachers are equitably distributed among high- and low-minority and high- and low-poverty schools. You may recall that all the states submitted equitable-distribution plans in 2006 and then promptly put them on the shelf and forgot about them. Back then, the distribution was concerned with “highly qualified” teachers. If the department is really serious about distributing effective, rather than qualified teachers, states receiving the RTTT funds are going to have to amp up their game. I only know of one state, Tennessee, that has even begun to conduct an analysis of where the most effective teachers are located.

In the meantime, Phase II of the stimulus guidance will apparently make good on the requirement that states report much more information about the state of their existing teacher- and principal-evaluation systems.

3. So you think it’s all about performance-based pay? Nuh-uh. States receiving Race to the Top funds must commit to using their teacher-effectiveness data for everything from evaluating teachers to determining the type of professional development they get to making decisions about granting tenure and pursuing dismissals. And, they will also be expected to track graduates of their education schools into classrooms to help institutions figure out which pathways and courses produce the best teachers.

4. With all this teacher stuff tied to test scores, you may be wondering how the unions feel. The criteria ask applicants to provide evidence that union leaders have approved the application, by signing a memorandum of understanding. However, during a conference call this morning with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I asked whether not having this endorsement is something that would make or break a state’s chances. “I don’t know if it would actually make you ineligible but [having that assurance] is something we would give a lot of attention to,” Duncan said.

Not entirely sure where that leaves Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers, who have pledged to make good use of the comment period on these regulations. However, I do think all this raises some big questions for the National Education Association. In a recent interview, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told me he wanted to seek clarification from Duncan on the use of the teacher data systems before staking out his position on them. Looks like he’s got his clarification now, and it will be interesting to see the union’s next steps.

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