Sen. Tom Harkin with a student in Des Moines, IA
In many ways, the latest reauthorization effort from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)–the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA)–reads like an endorsement of the administration’s NCLB flexibility plan. States that have received NCLB waivers would be able to continue with those plans in most respects. What’s more, SASA builds on the waiver process, with states’ Title I plans replacing the Department of Education’s flexibility request. Title I plans (which describe each state’s standards, assessments, and systems of accountability and school improvement) would be subject to Department approval every four years.
But what about Title II? We know effective teachers and principals have a lifelong positive impact on students. And it’s no secret that human capital reforms – from teacher evaluations to preparation and tenure – are among the most contentious in education. How does Harkin’s bill navigate these issues?
Unlike the Senate’s 2011 reauthorization proposal, states and school districts would have to develop and implement a professional growth and improvement system by the 2015-16 school year to receive Title II funding – a big sticking point with Senate Republicans, like Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who have introduced a competing reauthorization plan. These systems must be developed in consultation with educators, provide meaningful feedback, include multiple performance categories, align with professional development, and provide for training of evaluators. Echoing the results of the MET study, teachers would be evaluated based on three components: student achievement and growth; classroom observations; and other measures, like student surveys. These guidelines are broad enough to apply to all teachers, including those in the early grades and untested subjects that lack test-based data on student achievement. Student Learning Objectives or other measures could be used so long as they are “evidence-based.” Principals would be evaluated based on their instructional leadership, as well as student achievement, growth, and academic outcomes, including students reaching English language proficiency.
Notably, SASA deviates from states’ waiver plans by not requiring evaluations to inform personnel decisions. To some, like Democrats for Education Reform, this means stripping all accountability from the new evaluation systems. To others, this is welcome relief given states’ simultaneous adoption of new assessments and implementation of evaluation systems based on them. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, practically praised the bill for requiring “a variety of measures to evaluate teachers, rather than making test scores the be-all and end-all.” Further, any state with a waiver-approved teacher evaluation plan would be allowed to continue with it. But even with these provisions in place, some state advocates, like the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Chris Minnich worry about the “prescriptive language” around teacher evaluations.
Despite the noise, this seems like a comfortable compromise between both extremes – states are not prohibited from using evaluations for personnel decisions, and some may continue to do so in their waivers. At the same time, states must develop evaluations and include student achievement and growth measures, resisting the urge to “pause” these reforms entirely as states adopt the Common Core. The bill also rightly emphasizes the improvement and professional growth components within evaluation systems over more punitive elements. No district or state will be able to improve the quality of its education workforce solely by hiring new teachers – they must also figure out how to improve the teachers they have.
Funding Formula and Equity
With a $2.5 billion appropriation in FY 2012, Title II’s formula grants to states represent the largest federal programs for PreK-12 teachers. These grants aim to increase the number of highly qualified teachers and school leaders, as well as improve their effectiveness. However, the Title II grant formula has been stuck in time for over a decade – an issue that arose during the 2011 Senate NCLB reauthorization markup. First, states receive allocations equal to their 2001 funding levels under an older, expired grant program. Then additional Title II dollars flow to states by the NCLB formula. Harkin’s bill would remove that “hold harmless” provision so that all of Title II’s formula funding would be allocated with the updated formula.
Unlike Title II funding under NCLB, states and districts in SASA must address inequality in the distribution of highly effective teachers and principals. Although there is little accountability to ensure states and districts follow through, this is a move in the right direction for educational equity, since states have little incentive to even report this information currently. SASA would require this information be made public to parents in an Equity Report Card. Districts can’t fix a “teacher effectiveness gap” without knowing how bad the problem is, and the new data could jumpstart these efforts.
Class-Size Reduction vs. Professional Development
Under NCLB, districts can use their state funds for professional development, class-size reduction, and teacher quality activities, like retention and recruitment efforts, but the vast majority is spent on the first two activities. In 2011, districts surveyed by the Department reported using 42 percent of Title II grant funds for professional development and 38 percent on class-size reduction. SASA would make further changes, eliminating class-size reduction as an option in all but PreK-3rd grade classrooms and requiring that at least 20 percent of funds go toward professional development in priority schools. This would be a big lift for some districts, but reflects overall trends in Title II spending away from class-size reduction, which accounted for 57 percent of spending in 2003.
Preparation and Training
SASA also includes a version of the GREAT Act, a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). States could reserve up to 1 percent of their Title II allocation to develop new teacher and principal preparation academies that would be authorized directly by the state – instead of by traditional accreditors. Modeled after programs like the Relay Graduate School of Education, these academies must have high admissions standards and a rigorous selection process and include a strong mentoring component and instruction linked to candidates’ experiences in schools. Prior to graduating from the academy, all candidates would have to demonstrate their ability to increase student achievement and growth. In exchange, these academies would not have to meet certain regulations for preparation programs, including faculty degrees and research output, the number of credits hours or undergraduate coursework required, physical infrastructure, and accreditation. While the academies could be authorized by a state education agency or nonprofit, academies that do not produce effective teachers and leaders could not be reauthorized.
In addition, SASA authorizes a new competitive grant aimed at recruiting and training effective principals to work in low-income schools, particularly priority and focus schools, middle schools that feed into high schools with low graduation rates, and high-poverty rural schools. Modeled on legislation from Senators Bennet and Al Franken (D-MN), districts, states, and/or nonprofits and institutions of higher education could apply, but would need to provide at least a 20 percent match. Unlike the GREAT Act, this proposal would operate more closely with traditional preparation programs. Funds would be used to recruit highly qualified and diverse school leaders, provide principals and aspiring principals training tailored to the skills they need to lead high-needs schools, develop a year-long residency program and provide ongoing coaching, and train principal mentors. Programs would be evaluated on whether participants are placed and remain as principals in high-needs schools and whether student outcomes improve in those schools.
Both are promising approaches to improving principal leadership and effectiveness – an area that has often been overshadowed by teacher quality. And while not explicitly included in the formula-funded academies, states would have to describe how they would coordinate Title II with early education to strengthen the knowledge and skills of educators working with children PreK-3rd. Even better, states, districts, and other groups winning competitive grants must include training for elementary school principals on the benefits of high-quality early education and transitioning children from these settings to elementary schools – we’d like to see this expanded to in-service principal training as well.
Similar to the principal quality proposal, another competitive grant program – Pathways to Teaching – would support recruitment, selection, preparation, placement, and retention of teachers in high-needs subjects at high-needs schools. Grantees must focus on classroom management, instructional planning, literacy and cognitive development, developing and using assessments, and a clinical experience at a high-needs school, with ongoing mentoring. Sound familiar? Both the Obama administration’s reauthorization blueprint and Harkin’s last reauthorization attempt included a similar provision. The Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) would also receive permanent authorization in SASA and award grants to offer merit pay or bonuses for highly effective teachers in high-needs school and to improve teacher evaluations, compensation plans, and human capital systems.
While there is a lot to like in the new Title II plan, the prospects for SASA moving beyond a partisan Committee vote are slim. Stay tuned to both Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of both Senate proposals as we edge toward Tuesday’s markup.