As the Obama administration tackles an ambitious education reform agenda controversy continues to surround one key question: How do you ensure all students have access to great teachers?
Simply put the White House wants more accountability for teachers and supports evaluating teachers based on student performance. "The biggest single thing we can do is to get great teachers into struggling schools -- whatever it takes -- including incentive pay and other ideas," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a policy speech on Tuesday.
"If we know how much students are gaining each year, if we know how much they're improving, we will know which teachers and principals are succeeding, which ones need more support and help and which ones simply are not getting the job done," Duncan said.
The unions, on the other hand, argue that there is no one measurement that can successfully evaluate teacher performance and that the Obama agenda sets unfair standards for teachers.
While Secretary Duncan admits that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the administration is using the Race To The Top stimulus grant competition to reward states with innovative solutions to develop, reward and retain effective teachers. With $3.4 billion at stake in the second round of the competition, states are responding; so far 17 states have reformed their teacher evaluation systems to better compete in the Race To The Top.
In a speech Thursday at the National Urban League, President Obama admitted there has been controversy surrounding Race To The Top, particularly the idea of linking teacher evaluations to student achievement.
"For anyone who wants to use Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers, you're missing the point. Our goal isn't to fire or admonish teachers. Our goal is accountability. It's to provide teachers with the support they need, to be as effective as they can be, and to create a better environment for teachers and students alike," Obama said.
Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute agreed that the teacher evaluation systems stand out as the controversial "flashpoint" of the competition.
"We're now getting to the heart of the matter," Petrilli told ABC News. "All this talk for the last couple of decades about school accountability and even greater competition in education, this is all dancing around the core issue which is education is a labor intensive enterprise. We spend most of our money on teachers. Can we have a system where once you learn that somebody is not a good teacher we can get them out of the classroom? And to the administration's credit it's going right after this very hard issue and not surprisingly it's creating a real schism within the Democratic Party."
One has only to look at the current controversy surrounding teacher firings in Washington, D.C. to conclude that implementing these new evaluation systems may be easier said than done.
Over the past year, in conjunction with the local union, the District has adopted one of the nation's most ambitious teacher evaluation systems, revamping how the city administers, compensates and removes teachers from their jobs. In doing so, the District has become a leader in the growing movement to evaluate teachers more rigorously based on student achievement.