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.
Just last month, union members and the city agreed on a contract that increases teacher salaries by roughly 22 percent while allowing teachers to be evaluated and rewarded based on classroom results rather than traditional seniority rules. The contract also includes a performance pay system that provides up to $30,000 in bonuses to effective teachers.
Last week D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that she had fired 261 teachers, many of whom had received poor marks under the new evaluation system. The Washington Teachers' Union is contesting Rhee's decision.
When D.C. was named as a finalist in the second round of the Race To The Top earlier this week, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, adamantly opposed the decision.
"The centerpiece of Race to the Top is meaningful teacher evaluations developed with teacher input and focused on student learning… Logically, then, Washington, D.C.'s application, which includes an evaluation system developed and implemented solely by the chancellor, without regard to considerable criticism this year from frontline educators, should have ranked among the lowest. By naming D.C. a finalist, the Education Department is sending a message that is completely opposite to its earlier calls for states to engage all community members, including teachers, in the effort to improve schools," Weingarten said in a statement on Tuesday.
Petrilli disagreed. "You have to keep in mind union politics," he said. "The union leadership has felt like they've had to push back against these firings because that's what they do… At the same time 80 percent of the teachers in D.C. voted for that contract. The rank-and-file actually were willing take this deal and say 'yeah, we're going to get a lot more money, our salaries are going to go way up, and we know that some of our weaker teachers are not going to be protected.'"
Race To The Top has also come under fire recently for only impacting students in a few select states.
The first round of the competition awarded funds to only two states, Delaware and Tennessee. A report released earlier this week by the National Urban League in conjunction with six other civil right organizations, said that just 3 percent of the nation's black students and less than 1 percent of Latino students were affected by the first round of the competition.
The unions have also expressed concerns about the narrow reach of the competition. "While we encouraged our local and state affiliates to be involved in every aspect of Race to the Top, we have always been troubled that this competition, by its very construct, leaves out millions of students across the country. Rather than picking winners and losers, our education policies should represent a comprehensive approach focused on preparing every student to succeed in college, work and life," Weingarten said earlier this week.