Top Education Officials Spar Over Teacher Reform, Student Success

Ed. sec'y and union leader debate decision to release teacher evaluation data.

August 29, 2010— -- With classrooms in crisis around the country, the Obama administration is attempting the most ambitious school reform in a generation. But the Obama agenda, backed by $100 billion in stimulus money, has sparked controversy with teachers' unions over accountability and merit-based pay. This morning in an exclusive "This Week" education debate, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, faced off on the controversy surrounding the use of student test scores to evaluate America's teachers.

Today the Los Angeles Times released data on 6,000 individual teachers, ranking them according to their effectiveness in raising students' test scores. Duncan is encouraging schools to use this kind of data to evaluate teachers.

"Teachers want to get better. It shouldn't take a newspaper to give them that data. The district, the union, the education stakeholders have to work together to empower teachers. This should be a piece of how teachers are evaluated," he said.

Weingarten, however, said these types of assessments are unfair.

"What the L.A. Times did is they used this data, which is unreliable and is basically a prediction and an assumption, they used it in isolation of everything else. And so we said, let the teachers see it, let them use it. In fact, they are starting to do that in L.A., but don't publish it in this way," she said.

With 25 percent of American students failing to graduate on time, the need for reform is urgent. In one generation the U.S. has dropped from leading the world in college completion rates to being 12th internationally.

Washington D.C. Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who also participated in the "This Week" debate, has led the District to adopt one of the nation's most ambitious teacher evaluation systems. In conjunction with the local union, Rhee has revamped how the city administers, compensates and removes teachers from their jobs.

"We certainly sat at the table with the unions to craft a contract that we thought was going to be good for kids and fair to teachers. We completely revamped our teacher evaluation model so that it was more aligned with how students were actually performing," Rhee explained.

Although D.C. has become a leader in the growing movement to evaluate teachers based on student achievement, Rhee came under fire last month for terminating 261 teachers, many of whom had received poor marks under the new evaluation system. The Washington Teachers' Union is contesting Rhee's decision.

Rhee also instituted a pay-for-performance system in D.C. to reward the city's highest-achieving teachers. Duncan, who supports merit-pay for teachers, believes math and science teachers should be paid more, so should those who teach in high-poverty or rural schools.

"How do we get the hardest-working, the most committed to the children who need the most help? We have to be more creative. And let me be clear: Financial incentives are a piece of that, but a small piece. You need a great principal. You need a supportive community. All of us have to work together. You have to create the climate and the culture where great talent want to serve where it's most needed," Duncan said.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 72 percent of public school parents believe teachers should be paid based on the quality of their work. Twenty-eight percent say should be paid by the current scale.

Rhee explained why she thinks financial incentives are key to ensuring the nation's students have access to the best teachers. "We will be able to pay the most effective teachers in the district almost twice as much as they used to be paid ... It's incredibly important to recognize and reward the people who are doing heroic work in our classrooms every single day, just as important as it is to ensure that for those who are not performing, we're swiftly moving them out of the classroom."

But why is it so difficult to fire bad teachers? Last year in New York, for example, out of roughly 80,000 teachers, two-thirds of whom are tenured, only 32 tenured teachers were fired -- and of those 32, only seven were terminated for poor classroom performance.

"First, the states that actually have lots of teachers in teacher unions tend to be the states that have done the best in terms of academic success in this country," Weingarten explained. "And the states that don't tend to be the worst. The issue is not a teacher union contract or a teacher union management contract. What we have to do with these contracts is we have to make them solution-driven."