CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
June 2, 2012 – 3:02 p.m.
A Grass-Roots Start for Teachers’ Idea
By Lauren Smith, CQ Staff
A small band of teachers from around the country has been embedded in the Education Department on a fellowship program for the past year, and they have proposed a new vision for the teaching workforce. They want to raise teacher salaries significantly, make schools of education more selective and overall lift the profession to increase its prestige and attract top college graduates.
The Obama administration likes the proposal so much that it launched a public relations campaign around it in March called RESPECT — Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching — after requesting $5 billion to kick-start efforts in its fiscal 2013 budget a month earlier.
“Too often, teachers and principals operate at schools with a factory culture, where inflexible work rules discourage innovation and restrict teachers’ opportunities to work together as a team and to take on leadership roles,” Education Secretary
The blueprint for a new teacher workforce, Duncan and the teaching fellows maintain, would elevate the profession, putting it on par with medicine and the law, in order to ultimately provide students with a better education.
The problem, education policy experts point out, is that Washington has very little authority over state and local school district teaching and hiring policies, which are entangled with union contracts and state budget priorities. And even if Congress approved $5 billion to start the transformation — the likelihood of which is zero — the money would be enough to cover only 10 to 15 states.
“This vision is a pipe dream,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank. “This is all sorts of aspirational. I just don’t think you can do much beyond the bully pulpit to effect that much change.”
Such criticism isn’t dampening the administration’s spirit. The Education Department, well aware of its limitations, is employing a grass-roots strategy, sending its teaching fellows to local school districts across the country to build support from the ground up.
To be sure, many of the ideas have been proposed before by various policy experts and education organizations. But packaging them together in an effort to change the entire profession top-to-bottom is a more ambitious — and some say impossible — undertaking.
“The goal of the initiative is to identify and ultimately implement strategies to strengthen the profession by dramatically changing how teachers are recruited, selected, supported, compensated, promoted, and retained in the profession,” Duncan wrote in an open letter to the teaching fellows in February. “It is a bold plan that will take considerable time and resources, but one we firmly believe is worth the effort.”
Training and Feedback
The 16 teaching fellows who helped craft the RESPECT campaign were recruited by the Education Department to provide a teacher perspective to policy proposals.
“It’s very rare we have an opportunity for us as teachers to give feedback before it becomes policy,” says Genevieve DeBose, who has taught for 10 years in Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., and in the Bronx in New York City, before joining the program. “This is an opportunity for us to get it right and put our stamp on it. [The fellows] feel extremely lucky, appreciated and valued that their recommendations are taken in on the front end.”
A Grass-Roots Start for Teachers’ Idea
The motivation behind the administration’s campaign stems in part from the embarrassing performance by U.S. high school students on international tests that place them far behind students in other industrialized countries in reading, math and science; the ballooning number of teacher preparation programs with low bars for entry or graduation compared with other parts of the world; and rapidly declining morale among teachers over state budget cuts and antiquated policies.
Under the teaching fellows’ proposal, students would no longer advance in lockstep, age-based grades but would instead progress through the system based on what they know and can do. The formulaic school day and year, originally based on an agrarian calendar, would be eliminated and redesigned based on students’ needs. Teachers would have access to data measuring student learning and would be trained on how to use it to inform instruction hour to hour, day to day and year to year.
Becoming a teacher would be much more difficult, with a new workforce recruited from the top tier of students in the country. They would be required to demonstrate subject area expertise, proficiency in improving student learning and dispositions associated with successful teaching, such as perseverance and effective communication.
In addition, teacher preparation programs would be required to track and publish data on how long their graduates stay in the profession and how successful they are based on principals’ evaluations and student learning.
Like aspiring doctors, graduates of teaching schools would enter a clinical residency for two to four years with a “master” teacher before getting their own classes.
Starting salaries for teachers who have completed their residency could be as high as $65,000, according to the plan. As teaching careers progress, salaries would increase faster and maximum salaries would be higher, so that master teachers could earn as much as $120,000 to $150,000 after about seven to 10 years.
While pay has usually been linked to years of service or professional credentials, the proposed salary structure would more reflect the quality of a teacher’s work. Teacher evaluations would include an analysis of their responsibilities and accomplishments, measurements of student growth data, results from formal observations, self-evaluations, and feedback from students.
It’s highly unlikely that Congress will approve the administration’s $5 billion request to prod states into changing their teacher policies, given partisan divisions and this year’s looming budget battles. Duncan, however, has become quite adept at finding his way around congressional gridlock and offering incentives to states to change on their own.
During his tenure as secretary, Duncan has overseen the Race to the Top program, a grant competition that prods states — and in the latest round, school districts — into embracing steps that the administration favors. He also has waived provisions of the 2002 federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind, for states that offered alternatives for improving their schools, as long as the administration approves the alternatives.
Now, the Education Department’s teaching fellows are traveling around the country to meet with teachers and begin building support at the state level for the RESPECT proposal. The administration assures that this is not meant to turn teachers into lobbyists, but rather to collect teachers’ feedback and give them a seat at the table.
According to DeBose, at least 25 of the 30 teacher roundtable discussions that she has organized supported the blueprint. “A majority of folks are really excited about it,” she says.
“It’s all about opening teachers’ eyes and allowing them to see opportunities,” she says. “And maybe they’ll say, hey, maybe if this doesn’t happen, if Congress doesn’t appropriate $5 billion for this or our state doesn’t win, what can I do at my school or district level to make some of these changes? It’s all about having that dialogue.”
A Grass-Roots Start for Teachers’ Idea
There’s not much the Education Department can do to alter the school year or revamp teaching salaries, both of which are tied to union contracts or state policies. But the department could impose tighter regulations on teacher-training programs to begin weeding out the least effective ones. It used this tactic most recently in an effort to curb deceitful marketing and recruiting by for-profit colleges.
Congress, for its part, may also attempt to deal with teacher development programs and teacher evaluations in the upcoming reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007. Although floor votes aren’t expected this year, committees in both chambers have laid down markers for the future by approving reauthorization measures.
In the House, Minnesota Republican
‘Blaming and Shaming’
Implementing the administration’s proposal is fraught with obstacles. For starters, powerful teachers unions have reacted rather defensively.
“Having a campaign is good, but it can’t just be words,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “So frankly, rather than blaming and shaming teachers, rather than thinking there’s a silver bullet of rewarding and sanctioning, we should be helping and collaborating with teachers.”
Such a response reflects teachers’ general discontent with the profession, says Jennifer Cohen, education policy expert at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank. Teacher job satisfaction has plummeted by 15 percentage points, from 59 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2011, according to a MetLife study. Teachers reporting that they are likely to leave for another occupation went up from 17 percent in 2009 to 29 percent last year.
“I think a lot of teachers right now think they’re captive on a sinking ship,” Cohen says.
Moreover, some of the proposals to overhaul the teaching profession are enmeshed in complicated webs of supporters and critics that cross party lines.
Teachers unions, for example, have pressured Democrats to oppose including student test scores in teacher evaluations, arguing that they are not a good measurement of performance. Republicans often contend that setting evaluation requirements at the federal level would amount to government overreach. But some lawmakers in both parties, such as Kline, see evaluations as a necessary tool for identifying good teachers.
The big question is whether states will pick up where Washington leaves off, and whether the Obama administration can persuade all the various interest groups to go along.
“People are worried that this is a great vision, but how will this actually happen and how will we ensure that we have funding for these ideas?” DeBose says, describing the response from teachers around the country. “The other piece is, it comes back to leadership. Some say we’re all for this, but if our principals aren’t for it, if our superintendent, local organizations aren’t for it, how will this all happen?”
A Grass-Roots Start for Teachers’ Idea
Already, some states are taking steps outlined in the RESPECT plan. Louisiana and Tennessee now track how well teachers from various preparation programs perform. Teachers in Massachusetts must pass a relatively difficult certification exam. And more than 1,000 schools have taken steps to extend or restructure the school day.
In a positive sign of a growing commitment to transforming the teaching profession, the Education Department in May held its second labor management summit, at which teachers unions, heads of school boards, superintendents and others promised to work with instead of against each other.
“The ray of light between our stances on these issues is growing smaller and smaller,” Duncan said at the conference, held in Cincinnati. “We have to walk that walk. We can’t encourage states and districts to act a certain way if we’re all still in our silos.”
FOR FURTHER READING: Duncan circumvents Congress, CQ Weekly, p. 490; union flexibility, 2010 CQ Weekly, p. 1325; Race to the Top (PL 111-5), 2009 Almanac, p. 7-3.