Almost since the day the No Child Left Behind Act became law eight years ago, teacher-quality advocates have complained about the insufficiency of its rules for staffing classrooms with “highly qualified” teachers. Formal qualifications, they pointed out, don’t necessarily make for effective, engaging teachers.
But the focus began to shift when President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, in the course of pouring historic levels of new aid into education, also addressed the complex and politically fraught issue of teacher effectiveness.
The result has been a new federal emphasis on teachers’ on-the-job performance as a basis of gauging their capacity, rather the strength of “inputs” such as credentials, subject-matter knowledge, and the route into the profession.
“I think the focus on teacher effectiveness is really huge, and is as big as or bigger than the focus on common standards” in the administration’s push for reform, said Cynthia Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington.
Among other things, the economic-stimulus legislation and subsequent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education:
• Requires states to take steps to ensure that highly effective teachers are equitably distributed among schools;
• Requires states to report about the features of local teacher-evaluation systems, as well as the number and percentage of teachers scoring at each performance level on the evaluations;
• Requires districts to report school-level pay expenditures, in what experts view as a precursor to changes in the Title I program to account for differences in teacher pay between wealthier and poorer schools;
• Put $200 million in one-time funding into the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal grant program that seeds performance-based systems of teacher and principal compensation; and
• Invested $100 million in additional teacher-quality-partnership grants to support better teacher training, including “residency” models that incorporate yearlong student-teaching.
Putting Pieces Together
The full shape of the Obama administration’s agenda on effective teaching became clear only after the U.S. Department of Education released the guidelines for the stimulus program’s $4 billion in Race to the Top competitive grants, which will provide grants to states for education improvements.
States that develop nuanced teacher-evaluation systems and use the results of those systems to tie together professional development, compensation, and decisions on tenure, dismissal, and promotion, among other factors, have a leg up in the competition, which bases more than a quarter of the possible points on teacher effectiveness.
In what many observers viewed as drawing a line with teachers’ unions, the administration also required states applying for Race to the Top grants to incorporate student-achievement data into teacher evaluations. In fact, the competition disqualified states that put up barriers between student and teacher data. Unions had lobbied for such barriers in several states.
The debate is far from over. The idea of using student test scores from exams that have widely been seen as inferior continues to worry many teachers, union leaders, and researchers.
But while the 3.4 million-member National Education Association harbors concerns about the competition’s focus on test scores, its president, Dennis Van Roekel, praises the Obama administration for addressing the teaching profession holistically, from preparation through induction, evaluation, and practice. And it has done so with a mind to collaboration between unions and administrators, he added.
“We can’t just piecemeal this—we have to look at this whole system,” Mr. Van Roekel said. “At the federal level, there is more attention paid to the whole thing than ever before.
“And it’s about collaboration and not imposing things on teachers,” he said. “If you can’t develop [teacher-effectiveness policies] with management, employees, and the school board, it won’t work.”
Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Effectiveness Theme Echoes Throughout Stimulus