The next Race to the Top? Arne Duncan outlines vision for teacher reform.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched a $5 billion proposal Wednesday aimed at improving the teaching profession at every level. It would be modeled after the Race to the Top program.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Education Secretary Arne Duncan after speaking about No Child Left Behind, Thursday, Feb. 9, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

The Obama administration is focused on teaching again – but this time it’s hoping to reform the entire profession itself.

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke to teachers at a town-hall meeting to launch a $5 billion proposal that would try to improve the teaching profession at every level, from the recruitment and training process to the career ladder and pay and tenure systems.

“Our goal is to support teachers in rebuilding their profession – and to elevate the teacher voice in shaping federal, state, and local education policy,” Secretary Duncan told the teachers, according to prepared remarks. “Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America’s most important profession – [but also] America’s most respected profession.”

The program, dubbed the RESPECT Project (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), would be structured like another version of Race to the Top: a competitive grant program that would ask states to submit proposals.

The details would be hammered out in discussions with Congress, but Duncan has promised that it would look comprehensively at the teaching profession, touching on a few main areas:

• Reforming teacher colleges and making them more selective.

• Reforming compensation – including tying earnings to performance, paying teachers more for working in tough environments, and making teacher salaries more competitive with other professions.

• Creating new career ladders for teachers (in which they could develop some leadership and administrative skills but still be in the classroom).

• Reforming tenure.

• Improving professional development, giving teachers more time for collaboration, and giving some teachers more autonomy.

• Building teacher evaluation systems based on multiple measures.

At this point, the project is just a proposal – and it is couched inside President Obama’s American Jobs Act proposal, which Republicans declared a non-starter. It’s thus difficult to imagine it becoming a reality anytime soon.

But, despite the uncertain nature of the proposal, it’s jump-starting a conversation on what the teaching profession needs – and is getting buy-in from diverse corners, in part because it includes tough new accountability standards for the profession as well as increased pay, support, training, and respect for teachers.

“They’re focusing on both higher standards and better rewards for teachers,” says Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, which recruits and trains teachers for high-needs schools. “You can’t do one but not the other.”

Mr. Daly also lauds the structure of the proposal, saying that a competitive grant program will give incentives to states to “do the difficult stuff.”

The program has also received early praise from unions.

“This proposal represents a critical first-step in ensuring that all students have access to a range of high-quality resources, including qualified and licensed teachers who are empowered to innovate and inspired to take on ever-growing challenges,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, in a statement. “We are particularly pleased that others beyond our organization are beginning to acknowledge the comprehensive set of supports that schools need to improve and to recognize that there is no ‘silver-bullet’ when it comes to transforming schools.” 

Some of what the administration is proposing – including better teacher evaluations, more accountability in exchange for tenure, and a compensation system more closely tied to student performance – has been on its agenda for a while and has been part of Race to the Top or other federal programs.

But this is the first time the administration has taken such a comprehensive look at the overall teaching profession – including the teacher-training programs that feed into it.

“Many of our schools of education are mediocre at best,” Duncan said Wednesday. “Many teachers are poorly trained and isolated in their classrooms.”

Others agree that the quality of teacher training is a major problem.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, says that in a study he did a few years ago, he identified a few strong teacher-training programs in most parts of the country. “But most of the programs I saw were mediocre to poor,” Mr. Levine says. “We need fundamental changes to teacher education in America.”

Some of the problems with existing programs: low admissions and graduation standards, academic and in-classroom components that are disconnected from each other, not enough time spent in schools, and curricula that are dated and theoretical.

“If universities are given incentives, we can get them to make the changes,” says Levine, citing huge improvements at teacher-prep programs in some of the states where he’s been working in recent years.

One possibility that could make a big impact: simply collecting and publishing data on how graduates of various teacher-training programs do.

“We’ve built this system, and ... it isn’t focused on outcomes,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. More than anything, Mr. Knowles wants to see education schools held accountable for the performance of their graduates – though he believes they will protest – and he hopes that Duncan’s proposal could help launch such an effort.

Without those kinds of data, Knowles says, “the teacher-training industry is really like a cartel – not accountable for what it delivers, has a total corner on the market, and the places that actually hire teachers can exert no control over the supply.”

Despite Duncan's harsh words for some of the current teaching colleges, the Education secretary had nothing but praise for teachers in his meeting. And he's framed this proposal as a way to improve not only the quality of teaching, but also the attractiveness and stature of the profession.

“We need to change society’s views of teaching – from the factory model of yesterday to the professional model of tomorrow, where teachers are revered as thinkers, leaders, and nation-builders,” Duncan told teachers. “No other profession carries a greater burden for securing our economic future. No other profession holds out more promise of opportunity to children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. And no other profession deserves more respect.”

It would be difficult to imagine achieving such ambitious goals for just $5 billion, Knowles and others note, if the program were to get approved (although, as with Race to the Top, the competitive structure might help leverage more change). But if a portion of what’s proposed takes place, he believes it would be a crucial improvement.

“Ensuring accountability for those that deliver teachers, and then getting the incentives and accountability systems right when teachers start teaching, is one of the most important things we can do to improve the quality of American schooling,” Knowles says.

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