This year, the president and the Department of Education (ED) have taken on a new challenge — re-imagining the teaching profession through the Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching (RESPECT) program. The White House rolled out RESPECT on February 15 of this year with the mission of transforming the teaching profession into a highly respected, effective, and well-paid career. Last week, ED released additional details about RESPECT, focusing on strategies to elevate teachers, which were developed after consulting teachers, school leaders, analysts, and policymakers.
The newly released details about RESPECT read like a manifesto, full of lofty ideas and aspirations that would, ideally, dramatically alter the teaching profession. Proposed strategies include: reorganizing classrooms, schools, and the school year to allow for more flexibility in serving students; shared responsibility for student achievement between teachers and principals; an overhaul of teacher training programs; greater opportunities for professional advancement; teacher evaluations; and higher teacher and principal compensation.
To further this agenda, the White House has requested $5 billion from Congress. But instead of including the program in its ten year budget request, the administration proposed it outside of the regular 2012 appropriations. This would effectively mean that the spending would not have to be offset.
As proposed, ED would distribute the funds to states and consortia of school districts through a competitive grant process. Winning states and districts would be selected based on applications they submit proposing work based on the strategies outlined above.
While existing research supports these strategies, the real question is whether or not states have the capacity to tackle such a wide-reaching reform program amid budget cuts and personnel reductions. One need not look any further than the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. As we discussed in a previous post, states distributed millions of dollars in SIG grants to districts to turnaround the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. According to the Government Accountability Office, many states and districts ultimately lacked the capacity to successfully implement the required reforms. As a result, progress on school improvement has stalled while districts spend their time developing data systems or competing with other districts to re-staff their schools.
If states struggled to find the capacity to support their districts during SIG implementation, how will these same states build the capacity to re-envision the entire teaching profession, from training to evaluation to compensation? While crafting a competitive grant program that relies on states to shape the direction of the efforts and provide capacity provides states with greater control over education, it could set up states to flounder or fail once again.
Both RESPECT and SIG have the potential to foster innovation and push bold reform agendas. But ED should consider the challenges that states have faced in implementing SIG grants, including the fact that capacity is not established overnight, regardless of available funds. Of course, RESPECT is far from a done deal – it seems unlikely that Congress will pony up $5 billion for a new education initiative during tough fiscal times. But if RESPECT is implemented, the Obama administration should be wary of the limitations of state capacity. It is likely that the Department of Education will have to provide states and districts with significant support to ensure the funds are spent wisely and in a way that has a real impact on students.