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Reforming the Teacher Profession: From Consequences to Collaboration

Published:  April 25, 2013
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Much of the discussion around the President’s 2014 education budget has centered on proposed initiatives for universal pre-K and a $1 billion Race to the Top competition for college affordability and completion.

Compared to these bold new proposals, K-12 education seems to have drawn the short straw. The U.S. Department of Education could see some new or expanded programming for K-12  – additional money for the Promise Neighborhoods program, a new competitive grant competition for high school redesign, and an expanded School Turnaround Grants program – but nothing like what it has outlined for very young and adult learners.

The lack of banner initiatives for K-12 belies the attention that the Department has paid to the issue of teacher professionalism and evaluation over the past year. In fact, the dearth of new proposals may actually underscore the importance of changes to a reintroduced $5 billion proposal to transform the teaching profession – a proposal that was fleshed out today as the Blueprint for RESPECT (Recognizing Education Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching).

We would be remiss not to mention that issues of teacher evaluation and accountability have stirred a lot of public attention this year. September’s Chicago teacher strike and a recent federal lawsuit by Florida teachers on use of student scores for untested subjects have made teacher evaluation and dismissal practices a subject of national debate. Bill Gates’ Washington Post op-ed earlier this month advocated for the use of multiple measures for evaluation (including student surveys and observations by veteran teachers), as well as policies that increase collaboration rather than competition amongst teachers. Accountability measures are here to stay, but  Gates argues that the focus should shift towards how to use them in a way that increases the number of effective teachers.

In last year’s budget, the administration proposed using $5 billion from the failed American Jobs Act for a competitive grant program to “reshape the teaching profession.” The initiative as originally conceived was accountability-heavy; it suggested that state or district reforms could include making teacher training programs “more selective and accountable” and “ensuring that compensation is tied to performance.” Other possibilities included reforming tenure to “raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability” and strengthening teacher autonomy “in exchange for greater accountability.”

While not enacted, the American Jobs Act proposal did launch the RESPECT project, the Department’s attempt to engage in a national conversation on the teaching profession. This project facilitated conversations on the teaching profession across the nation and provided districts and teachers with a way of submitting feedback to the Department. Over the last two years, the Department has held 360 roundtables with 5,700 educators and solicited feedback from national teacher organizations, like the National Education Association.

Given the administration’s focus on effective teaching and school leadership, we weren’t surprised when this part of the American Jobs Act initiative returned in the 2014 budget request as $5 billion in mandatory funding to underwrite the RESPECT Project. But we were surprised by some changes to the proposal. Perhaps as a result of the conversations started by its namesake, the language used in the current budget proposal is strikingly transformed from the 2013 request.

After a year of conversations with teachers, the Department is now thinking – or at least speaking – differently. See for yourself below: “accountability” and “tenure” have been replaced, literally, by “shared leadership and responsibility for student outcomes.” Compensation system reforms are now designed to “attract and retain top talent.” Reforms could include creating “conditions in schools that support effective teaching, including by providing teachers greater autonomy… and time for collaboration.”

Budget Justification 2013 and 2014

The system reforms envisioned in the two versions of the proposal are largely the same, but the 2014 RESPECT version is couched in the language of talent development and teacher support, rather than accountability and consequences. Those in the Department may have recognized that implementing evaluation systems doesn’t have to mean identifying winners and losers in teaching careers. Rather, these new systems can spur the development of a profession that relies on collaboration, data, and talent development to increase student achievement.

The strong shift in budget justification language, in addition to the release of the Blueprint today, signal a credible change in the way that the Department is addressing the issue of teacher quality and retention. Regardless of whether the RESPECT project is funded, it will be fascinating to see how this new direction influences other competitive grant programs, like the Teacher Incentive Fund, and whether it can ultimately facilitate changes to strengthen the teacher profession.

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