Obama’s new teacher plan: Not so new?

A National Board Certified Teacher shares ideas in Dec. 2011 with the Department of Education on strengthening the teaching profession. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made his case yesterday for the $5 billion that he and President Barack Obama want Congress to put toward a new grant competition to overhaul the teaching profession. The program would follow the mold of the administration’s $4.35-billion Race to the Top competition in form and, it seems to a large degree, also in substance.

Alyson Klein at Education Week summed up the basics of the new plan: “They want to use the money to help states and districts do a whole host of things, including: overhaul teachers’ colleges to make them more selective, create career ladders for teachers, give extra money to teachers who work in tough environments, bolster professional development, revamp tenure, craft evaluation systems, and make teachers’ salaries more competitive with other professions.”

It’s unlikely that the Obama administration will get the money for the new program, given the bitter political climate in Washington, D.C. right now, but for many of the program’s goals, this may not matter too much.

The teaching profession is already undergoing sweeping changes nationally, in no small part because of the Obama administration. About half of states are on a path to change teacher evaluations to factor in both student test-scores and other measures of teacher performance. Some states adopted these new policies because they won Race to the Top, while others did so because they were hoping to win Race to the Top. And now a new crop of states is set to redo their evaluations as a condition of getting a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements.

And then there are the struggling schools that won federal School Improvement Grants, most of which had to promise to create new evaluation systems to get the federal money under rules set by the Obama administration. It appears in many places that SIG schools are influencing their districts and even entire states to adopt new evaluation systems on a larger scale.

At the same time, several states are trying to make teacher tenure harder to attain and easier to lose, and some have already succeeded. Quite a few are seeking to increase accountability for education schools, using rating systems that could be linked to funding in an effort to improve teacher quality. Merit pay is spreading slowly but steadily to an increasing number of places across the nation. (The federal Teacher Incentive Fund has helped in this expansion.)

So what’s new about the program the Obama administration is proposing besides the additional money to further its reform agenda?

Duncan hosted a town hall meeting yesterday in D.C. to discuss the plan with teachers. For one, the project is meant to involve a close collaboration with teachers themselves on ways to “elevate the teaching profession,” Duncan said. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, was on hand at the town hall, and has praised the plan so far. (Klein writes that the proposal to increase teacher salaries in particular has them “pretty jazzed.”)

During the town hall, one teacher mentioned bringing educators out of the isolation of their classrooms so they could work together. (I can’t recall a single school I have visited in the last two years that hasn’t transformed itself into a “professional learning community” in an effort to do just that, but that doesn’t necessarily have to do with an explicit push by the Department of Education.)

Duncan also brought up the large amount of federal spending on professional development—$2 billion a year—and how bad most of the offerings are. Although there have been some changes—one-day workshops, which are seen as mostly useless by experts in the field, are losing favor—this is still an area that has received little attention in recent years. States and districts have focused on identifying good and bad teachers, but less has been done policy-wise to encourage better ways to help all teachers improve.

Another big issue discussed was the need for a cultural shift, so that teachers are more valued by society at large. The name of the program gets at this goal; it’s called the RESPECT project. But how to increase respect for teachers is a more nebulous and difficult job.

The Obama administration seems to believe greater respect for the teaching profession will follow the reforms it has already set in motion, and which it clearly wants to expand even further and faster with this new block of money. It’ll be interesting to see if the teachers they want to become more active in this effort will agree with the administration’s approach.