Voices in Education

The Race to the Top
The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed guidelines for awarding Race to the Top grants communicate a powerful message. States barring the use of student data in decisions about teacher and principal evaluation will not be eligible for funds. In his remarks, President Obama made clear that “success should be judged by results” and the $4 billion in Race to the Top money will only “go to states that use data effectively to reward effective teachers, to support teachers who are struggling, and when necessary, to replace teachers who aren't up to the job.”

According to the guidelines, states seeking grants will need to determine an approach to measuring student growth, employ this measure as part of a balanced and rigorous process for differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness, provide teachers and principals with the data, and use this information to make decisions regarding evaluation, compensation, career advancement, and tenure.

Efforts to undertake reform of this nature are currently underway across the country, but this type of systemic change is anything but easy. A Grand Bargain for Education Reform (Harvard Education Press: August, 2009), prepared in collaboration with some of the nation’s most prominent educators, was written to equip policy makers and practitioners with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to both implement and sustain these types of changes. Not only does the Operation Public Education (OPE) framework discussed in A Grand Bargain respond to the President’s call by offering an ambitious and comprehensive system for evaluating, compensating, and providing professional development for school teachers and administrators, but it does so in a way that empowers teachers as equal partners in reform.

Education policy makers and practitioners have long searched for a fair system that will help teachers and administrators reach higher levels of performance, identify and reward good practice, and most importantly, accelerate student achievement. The new Race to the Top funds being made available provide an unprecedented opportunity to create this new and better school system.

However, as state policy makers complete their applications, it is essential they remember that this should not be about “getting tough” with teachers and administrators, but rather, about creating a system where appropriate responsibility is paired with necessary assistance. In this realigned system, new forms of accountability must go hand in hand with new rewards and supports to help educators succeed in their instructional tasks.

Most importantly, if the reforms made possible by the new infusion of funds are to be sustained, teachers must be at the vanguard of change. There must be a simple but powerful quid pro quo: carefully targeted investment in return for fundamental education reform. At the core of the approach, teachers are held responsible as individuals for student learning gains, but in return, they are given a greatly expanded role in schools – peer review, a key part in the process of remediating struggling colleagues, and an equal say in major issues that affect their classrooms.

States should not use these new funds to impose change through top-down command and control. Rather we firmly believe that the best chances for success lie with progressive educators and union leaders who willingly work together to improve public schools.

About the Author: Theodore Hershberg is a professor of public policy and history and director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania, and director of Operation Public Education. Claire Robertson-Kraft is associate director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia and of Operation Public Education, and a former elementary school teacher.