Teaching Profession

Obama’s Teacher Plans Stress Competitive Grants

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 19, 2010 9 min read
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In its fiscal 2011 budget request, the Obama administration has laid out its intention of carrying forward key teacher-effectiveness policies within the economic-stimulus law into the next edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In doing so, the budget proposal would invest heavily in competitive grants for new ways of recruiting, training, evaluating, and compensating teachers and principals, dramatically shrink the amount of teacher-quality funding doled out by formula, and consolidate a handful of smaller teacher programs that have fierce congressional defenders.

With those issues on the table, proposals that some teacher experts call visionary could prove to be a difficult sell on Capitol Hill.

“There are all these programmatic and structural changes, and I can’t imagine Congress is going to agree to exactly these consolidations,” said Joel Packer, an education principal at the Raben Group, a Washington lobbying firm. The administration “would have to point out that this is going to save money spent on administrative bureaucracy, [with] fewer applications and criteria.

“I think those things would appeal to Republicans,” continued Mr. Packer, a former lobbyist for the National Education Association, “but I think with Republicans, as well as Democrats, there will be a question of whether we want to transfer this much authority to the secretary of education.”

Focus on Effectiveness

President Barack Obama’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Education, released this month, comes as the first major reconceptualization of federal teacher-quality spending in a decade.

Proposed Changes in Funding

Budget tables project that states will see an overall decline in guaranteed K-12 federal funding through formula programs, if lawmakers approve the Obama budget as is. Proposals to cut $500 million from the Title II teacher-quality formula state grant and to make the $1 billion 21st-Century Community Learning Centers flow through a competition would play the biggest role in those declines.


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“What’s striking is that the budget reflects a coherent vision for teacher quality,” said Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a New York City-based teacher-training group. “It doesn’t feel like a disjointed set of individual programs.”

Among the new programs is a $950 million Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund, which would support competitive grants for finding ways to promote and compensate educators, and provide incentives for them to take on challenging school assignments.

In addition, the budget seeks $405 million to support different “pathways” into teaching, and three programs totaling just over $1 billion focused on improving teacher instruction in core content areas.

In all, compared with the current fiscal year, the budget would add $530.5 million in federal teacher spending—all in competitive funding.

It is a dramatic shift from how teacher funding was conceived under the current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act.

That 8-year-old law requires schools to staff all core academic courses with a “highly qualified” teacher—a standard mainly defined as holding full certification and demonstrating subject-matter competency. Title II of the law, in addition, authorizes Congress to provide $3 billion in flexible grants to states through a formula to meet the goal.

Over the past decade, however, important findings from longitudinal research have found that teachers’ influence on student achievement varies greatly and is only weakly correlated with traditional measures of effectiveness, such as credentials.

The first federal program to concentrate on alternative measures of teacher effectiveness was the Teacher Incentive Fund, or TIF, a 2006 program created to seed local experiments with performance-based pay.

More recently, the $4 billion federal Race to the Top competition, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has upped the ante by specifying that decisions about teacher promotion, retention, and evaluation should include consideration of students’ academic growth.

The administration’s budget request reflects those changes and would prod all states and districts to continue examining measures of effectiveness, said Robin Chait, the associate director of teacher quality for the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, who has written extensively on federal teacher-quality policy.

She highlighted the $950 million competitive fund for innovations in teacher and principal incentives as a logical successor to TIF.

“We know there are a lot of other elements of teacher policy beyond compensation that are really important, like evaluation and career ladders and recruitment and tenure,” Ms. Chait said. “If you can develop a competitive-grant program that focuses on all of these, and is focused on student outcomes, that’s a promising approach.”

That strategy of using competitive grants to encourage change makes sense given that the Race to the Top caused states to take quick, aggressive action on their teacher-quality policies, said Eric Hirsch, the senior project director for the New Teacher Center, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based nonprofit group that works to improve new-teacher induction.

“I think [the administration] is being effective in starting to raise the floor across states in having some growth-based measures, improved evaluation systems, and the right data,” he said.

Decreases for States

Even so, the new competitive programs would be financed in part by moving $500 million out of the now $3 billion Title II state formula grant.

In effect, the shift would cause most states to see a significant decrease in guaranteed federal formula funding, according to budget projections prepared by the Education Department. Not all states would stand to make up the difference through the competitive teacher grants.

Getting federal lawmakers to agree to a change that could jeopardize funding for their states and districts is a matter of delicate politics, according to Charles Barone, who helped craft the existing teacher-quality provisions in the NCLB law as an aide to Rep. George Miller, now the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“It’s never politically viable for a state to have a net loss from one year to the other,” Mr. Barone said, though shifting from formula to competitive grants could be palatable politically if current state funding were held harmless, he added.

Scaling back the formula grants is also difficult from a budgeting and planning perspective, said Mr. Packer of the Raben Group. In particular, he pointed out, many school districts chose to use Title II formula dollars to pay the salaries of teachers hired to reduce class sizes between 1999 and 2001.

“I think that creates some real-world issues, since there were some 30,000 teachers hired with class-size dollars,” he said.

Some of the concerns raised against the teacher-quality budget proposal are more philosophical than monetary.

According to budget-justification documents, states wanting to use the Title II formula aid would have to agree to revamp their teacher evaluations and to report on measures of teacher and principal effectiveness, the quality of educator support and working conditions, the equitable distribution of qualified and effective teachers and effective principals, and the effectiveness of teacher- and principal-preparation programs.

The president of the NEA has reservations about some of the proposed criteria.

“I surely hope the federal government will not micromanage school districts to the point of defining compensation and evaluation systems,” said Dennis Van Roekel. The NEA argues that such decisions should be made by districts and unions.

On the teacher-preparation front, the $405 million for a competitive “pathways” program into teaching would be more than triple what the prior programs received. They include the Teacher Quality Partnerships grant program, which supports teachers’ colleges and is currently part of the Higher Education Act, not the ESEA; Teach For America; and the Transition to Teaching alternative-certification program.

The proposal broadly reflects Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s priorities for preparation. He has highlighted both the “residency” model of teacher preparation, in which teachers apprentice in a high-need school before becoming a teacher of record, and alternative programs such as Teach For America, which couples a short preservice experience with intensive professional development.

Now the two approaches would be competing for funds under a single, standard set of criteria, though it is not yet clear just what those criteria might be. So far, constituents subsidized under the old funding streams aren’t convinced about the move.

To the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the proposed shift of the TQP grant is “perplexing” and seems to downgrade the importance of teacher colleges, which prepare more than 80 percent of new teachers.

“This seems to be a very modest acknowledgment of the willingness of the industry to take on very ambitious, leading-edge capacity-building for the future,” said Sharon P. Robinson.

TFA, which currently receives $18 million in the federal education budget through its own line item, is already ramping up its lobbying to oppose the consolidation.

The funding makes up about 10 percent of the group’s overall budget, and a shift to a competition would require the group to shrink operations by that much, at least temporarily, said Kevin Huffman, TFA’s executive vice president of public affairs.

Though he acknowledged that the organization could compete for greater funding under the new program, “if you’re an organization like ours, you can’t have a substantial part of your budget tied up in a grant program that has so many to-be-determined items,” Mr. Huffman said.

Aides on Capitol Hill were generally reluctant to comment on the proposals given their preliminary nature.

“It’s too soon to say whether this is a move in the right direction,” said one aide to House education committee members. “One area of concern is the move toward a new, undefined measure of teacher effectiveness—something that would come on top of the ‘highly qualified’ teacher definition in current law that has proven problematic.”

Contingency Plan

Although the House education committee plans to begin hearings on ESEA renewal this month, appropriators will be under pressure to begin advancing the federal spending bills before the new fiscal year begins Oct 1, which means the Obama administration also faces an issue of timing.

In an acknowledgment of the challenges to completing an ESEA renewal before the appropriations process, the administration proposed a contingency plan for the 2011 budget.

That plan requests putting all new teacher-quality funding into the competitive Teacher Incentive Fund, which would more than double it, to $900 million.

There is an advantage for the department in doing so, because TIF, which has never received an official congressional authorization, allows federal officials much leeway in setting priorities for the competition. The Education Department already holds $600 million in unobligated TIF funding appropriated through the fiscal 2010 budget cycle and the 2009 stimulus bill.

Whatever happens on the shape of federal teacher funding in the future, Mr. Hirsch of the New Teacher Center wonders how to make sure it helps classroom teachers change what they are doing every day.

“How do we take these ideas and move them from federal government to state government, to districts and schools, to teachers and into practice?” he said. “If we look at it as a game of ‘telephone,’ there are a lot of places where the messages can get miscommunicated.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Obama Proposes Teacher Results in Federal Law


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