Monthly Archives: October 2009

Cages of Their Own

October 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 2
Developing School Leaders Pages 28-33
Cages of Their Own Design
Frederick M. Hess
Breakthrough leadership is possible in schools—if reform-minded educators boldly step out of self-defeating mind-sets into the turbulence of change.

Principals and superintendents frequently lament that their hands are tied by contracts, policies, and regulations—especially when it comes to hiring and firing staff, assigning employees to schools or classrooms, designing programs, or allocating resources. There is something to these complaints, and I believe they are real problems.

But more than one thing can be true at a time. It is also the case that education leadership is marked by a debilitating timidity; reform-minded administrators could make much better use of their existing authority.

John Deasy, former superintendent of Prince George’s County, Maryland, gained national acclaim for overseeing substantial achievement gains in low-performing schools. Even in a district with a collective bargaining agreement widely judged as restrictive, he shattered notions of what local leaders could do by transferring hundreds of teachers to new schools and initiating a voluntary pay-for-performance system. “Nothing prohibited any of this,” Deasy explained. “Why does it not happen? [Because] most people see the contract as a steel box. It’s not. It’s a steel floor with no boundaries around it. You’ve just got to push and push and push.”

In 2008, Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee dusted off a decade-old statute permitting principals to weigh other factors alongside seniority when making staffing decisions. The law had sat unused even as Rhee’s predecessors complained they were powerless when “bumping rights” enabled senior teachers to displace younger peers. “Bumping rights had been viewed as a problem for those of us trying to get quality teachers in the classroom,” said Kevin Chavous, a Washington, D.C., council member who helped craft the law. “[But] even after the law was passed, superintendents operated under the assumption that bumping rights were still there” (Hayes, 2008).

In district after district, much that might be done goes untried.

The Familiar Reasons
One common excuse for moving gingerly on teacher performance or assignment is the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). However, in a 2008 analysis of CBA work rules, teacher compensation, and personnel policies in the 50 largest U.S. school districts, policy analyst Coby Loup and I found that although one-third were highly restrictive, most included substantial ambiguity on various counts (Hess & Loup, 2008). Vanderbilt University professor R. Dale Ballou (2000) reported that, in Massachusetts,

On virtually every issue of personnel policy, there are contracts that grant administrators the managerial prerogatives they are commonly thought to lack. When more flexible language is negotiated, administrators do not take advantage of it [but still] blame the contract for their own inaction. (p. viii)

A second familiar complaint is the heavy hand of state and federal regulations. One of the few attempts to address this challenge, however, suggests a more complex story. In the 1980s, the California legislature allowed districts to apply for waivers if they could demonstrate that laws or rules were hampering school improvement. Columbia University professor Henry Levin (2006) recounted, “Fewer than 100 [waivers] were made in the first year” out of more than 1,000 districts. More surprising, noted Levin, was that “the vast majority of all requests for waivers were unnecessary” (p. 173). A review by legal counsel found that nearly all the proposed measures were permissible under existing law. Superintendents and boards mistakenly thought policies were more restrictive than they were or, Levin (2006) added, were using laws and regulations “as a scapegoat … to justify maintaining existing practices” (p. 174).

A third excuse for tepid leadership is, “We don’t have the money.” On this count, an immense problem is the practice of regarding salaries and staff time as sunk costs and failing to pursue new efficiencies. Districts rarely eliminate staff, even when a new product or service might enable 9 employees to accomplish what once took 10. The result is that labor-saving technologies or services rarely appear cost-effective.

Tim Daly, CEO of the New Teacher Project, a New York–based venture that helps districts recruit faculty and address human resource challenges, explained that districts frequently say, “They loved our work” but that “we are too expensive … that our teachers were $5,000 to $6,000 per head and that their human resources department could recruit teachers for $100 or $150 per head.” In fact, Daly said,

This calculation was based solely on two expenses: fees paid to attend job fairs and ads placed in newspapers. It didn’t include any of the costs for staff salaries or benefits, or office space used by the recruiters, or technology infrastructure, or placement costs, or mentoring. They just added up the most readily tallied costs and divided by the number of teachers hired.

Managing this way means that reform proceeds only as fast as new resources are layered atop the old—and it grinds to a halt when new dollars stop flowing.

A Defensive Mind-Set
So, if it is not (just) the contracts, rules, or a lack of money, then what is the problem?

Put simply, education leaders are trained and raised to operate from a defensive posture. Superintendents and principals learn early to tread gingerly, pursue consensus, get clearance before acting, and abide by established procedures. Whatever the statutory and contractual hurdles leaders face, these are dramatically worsened by the socialization, training, and legal culture of the K–12 environment.

A Premium on Conventional Wisdom
A significant obstacle is that training often emphasizes requirements and standard procedures while providing little understanding of where opportunities for change may lie. New York City Chancellor Joel Klein noted, “There is probably more flexibility inside some contracts than gets exercised … and I think that’s [in part] simply about knowledge. When I got there, I was astonished at how few principals knew they had authority to do things.” Education law scholar Perry Zirkel agreed, asserting that administrators are less hamstrung by statute than they believe but that “knowledge deficits” have led them to “overestimate legal requirements.”

Education leaders sense the problem. In 2006, Public Agenda reported that more than 60 percent of principals and superintendents thought “typical leadership programs in graduate schools are out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run today’s school districts” (Johnson, Arumi, & Ott, 2006).

In 2007, education researcher Andrew Kelly and I examined more than 200 syllabi from a sample of U.S. principal preparation programs and found little or no attention to such issues as removing mediocre employees or using data to overhaul operations (Hess & Kelly, 2007). The most widely assigned texts typically echo Thomas Sergiovanni’s (1996) assertion that “we [must] accept the reality that leadership for the schoolhouse should be different, and … we [need to] begin to invent our own practice” (p. xiv).

The most commonly assigned authors included such school leadership icons as Thomas Sergiovanni, Michael Fullan, Lee Bolman, and Linda Darling-Hammond. Absent were such influential management thinkers as Michael Porter, Jim Collins, Clayton Christensen, and Tom Peters. Leaders who have spent their entire careers in K–12 education may have had little exposure to different ways of thinking and may learn to regard familiar routines as inevitable and immutable (Hess & Kelly, 2007).

Also, one ironic consequence of this lack of exposure is that thinkers like Collins and Christensen too often become objects of faddish fascination for educators. Having seldom had the opportunity to scrutinize this body of work or coolly assess how the insights translate into K–12 schooling, school leaders can easily misapply sensible insights, swallow pat but misguided prescriptions, or mistake jargon for action. The point is not to celebrate management thinkers—much less to assign them talismanic status—but to produce leaders who poke and prod challenges from many angles and are able and willing to devise smart, tough-minded solutions.

Socialized to Accept the Status Quo
Fully 80 percent of superintendents follow a career path that leads from teacher, to principal, to superintendent, with two-thirds serving in the district central office en route (Glass, Bjork, & Brunner, 2000, as cited in Orr, 2002). Principals are almost entirely drawn from the ranks of former teachers, and almost all receive their leadership training in schools of education where inclinations toward a consensus-driven worldview can calcify into dogma.

Although education leadership lies at the intersection of two vibrant and powerful bodies of thought—education and leadership/management—it tends to be the province of a narrow population of “education administration” specialists. Most other fields approach leadership training differently, hiring graduates of MBA programs (where those interested in an array of for-profit and nonprofit roles learn together) and managers and leaders who have worked in other sectors and organizations.

More than anything, principals and superintendents live in a culture that puts a premium on collegiality and consensus. Although managers in most walks of life take for granted the utility of rewarding effective employees and sanctioning ineffective ones, this is a radical practice in education. Public Agenda reported in 2006 that only 20 percent of superintendents and 17 percent of principals thought linking rewards or sanctions to student learning would be a “very effective” way to improve teacher quality. Only 29 percent of principals thought eliminating teacher tenure would be a “very effective” way to boost teacher quality (Johnson, Arumi, & Ott, 2006, p. 18).

On the other hand, 62 percent of principals thought teacher quality could be boosted “very effectively” by increasing professional development; 54 percent, by decreasing class size; and 45 percent, by raising teacher pay. In short, there seems to be a strong preference for nonconfrontational strategies and a deep reluctance to consider more muscular approaches (Johnson, Arumi, & Ott, 2006, p. 18).

A consequence of this mind-set is that change is typically slow and expensive. The strategies that principals and superintendents tend to prefer all require new dollars, and they promise no new efficiencies. In the course of their professional experiences, few superintendents have seen firsthand more assertive models of leadership. Those seeking successful careers do well to steer clear of heated clashes over staffing, school closures, new delivery models, or nontraditional vendors; instead, they move deliberately on less controversial instructional and curricular strategies.

The Law as Stop Sign
Finally, school and district leaders are hindered by a tendency to regard the law as a stop sign—and their attorneys as traffic cops. As Robert Holster, superintendent of the Passaic, New Jersey, school district for more than 16 years, lamented, “I run a lot of decisions by legal counsel, getting input as to, ‘Is this the legal decision to make?’ It seems like we are challenged more by everyone today—from students to parents to staff. Everyone has a lawyer.”

Education leaders typically view the law as a series of established hurdles when it is actually a far more uncertain beast. Maree Sneed, an education lawyer and partner at the Washington, D.C.–based law firm Hogan and Hartson, explained that legal questions often do not have yes or no answers. “Lawyers shouldn’t decide what is done,” she said. “Their job is to say ‘Here are the parameters. Here is a way to do it—but there is some risk.'”

Alan Bersin, now President Obama’s “Border Czar”—but in previous roles San Diego superintendent, California secretary of education, and U.S. attorney for Southern California— noted that attorneys are instinctively cautious and that the superintendent’s job is to push back. “If a lawyer, for instance, told me that I couldn’t do something, I’d always ask, ‘Why, and what are the circumstances or changes that could permit us to do it?'” he said. “That’s the attorney-client dialogue that ought to occur. A good lawyer would never just say that you can’t do something … and a competent CEO would never take just that as a final answer.”

Flying Free of the Cage
Painting inside the lines may work in well-situated suburban communities, but it is an enormous hindrance in locales where leaders face a steep climb to aggressively boost teacher quality, tackle ineffective practices, find new efficiencies, or revamp outmoded routines. The crucial step in breakthrough leadership is shifting from a defensive to a change-agent mind-set. Five strategies can help leaders, policymakers, and reformers make this shift.

Strategy 1: Look beyond the usual boundaries of what is permissible.
Recognize the difference between how business is usually done and how it could be done. Scrutinize the contract and related policies, asking whether there is anything explicitly prohibiting an action. A crucial task is soliciting fresh perspectives by pursuing training, reading, and experiences that can help you learn how leaders operate outside K–12 education. John Deasy, for instance, noted that when it comes to redefining what is permissible, “my most formative experiences have developed almost entirely in relationships and mentorships with noneducators.”

Strategy 2: Promote transparency.
Shine a public floodlight on what laws, regulations, and labor agreements actually say, and explain the problems caused by restrictive policies. By flagging the problems caused by seniority-driven “bumping” rules, the New Teacher Project has played a crucial role in altering teacher assignment policies in New York and elsewhere. The ensuing media glare made it tougher for the United Federation of Teachers to defend problematic practices, gave the union leadership reason to seek a deal that would staunch the bad publicity, and consequently put district leaders in a stronger bargaining position. Putting anachronistic or perverse practices on public display is a terrific way to mobilize civic leaders, attract media attention, and build support for leaders to scrap the old ways and take bold action.

Strategy 3: Get the law on your side.
Crucial to change-minded leadership is making the law a tool of reform—to make ambiguity and uncertainty work for, rather than against, a leader’s school improvement efforts. Because the law sets forth what can and cannot be done, it is a mistake to try to work around the corners of the law; leaders intent on overhauling policy or practice must be prepared to tackle the law head-on. This requires smart, creative, substantive, tough-minded attorneys focused on helping leaders drive change.

Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, noted, “A good general counsel … will tell you how to achieve what you want and how to do it within the law.” Whether this help is funded by the district, granted by donors, or offered pro bono by local firms is immaterial—what matters is the focus on ways to help district leaders drive improvement.

Strategy 4: Welcome nontraditional thinking and leaders.
Those who come to education leadership through nontraditional routes and who are not education careerists may find it easier to observe and to say that the emperor has no clothes. They are less likely to accept prevailing norms and more likely to ask, Why do we do it this way? The point is not that we should prefer nontraditional leaders to seasoned educators, but that standard practice can prevent decision makers from tapping into unconventional skills, insights, or ways of thinking.

Whatever their backgrounds, leaders need to be exposed to how others outside the confines of K–12 education tackle hiring, professional development, evaluation, accountability, and budgeting. Do not assume that professional development should focus narrowly on traditional education leadership; explore alternative options, including executive partnerships and business schools.

Strategy 5: Provide cover.
If you practice change leadership, you are asking for grief without support from above. As the University of Memphis’s Thomas Glass noted,

Where superintendents and principals know their boards are going to support them, they are more likely to take risks aimed at bringing about reform. But superintendents unsure of what their board members want or insecure about how they will respond to controversy are reluctant to stick their necks out. (Education Writers Association, 2003, p. 6)

For this to ring true, boards and district leaders must honor change agents and accept inevitable reversals. Joel Klein, for example, encourages principals to make aggressive personnel decisions—even if some of them do not pan out. Referring to his time in the Clinton administration, he notes, “When I was at the Justice Department, I used to say, ‘If we’re winning every case we bring, we’re not bringing enough cases.'”

Looking Conflict in the Eye
I am not suggesting that there is some grand virtue in conflict or in pushing against rules; only that deep reform almost invariably entails creating some hard feelings, upending familiar routines, and overcoming established procedures. Superintendents and principals intent on sidestepping conflict while overhauling low-performing schools and systems will prove, at best, tepid agents of change.

Geniality is a good thing, but there is a time for consensus and a time for conflict. Principals and superintendents intent on radically improving schools and systems need to accept and be prepared for a good bit of turbulence.

References
Ballou, R. D. (2000). Teacher contracts in Massachusetts. Boston: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. Available: http://www.pioneerinstitute.org/pdf/wp12.pdf

Education Writers Association. (2003). Effective superintendents, effective boards: Finding the right fit (Special Report). Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://www.ewa.org/docs/leadership.pdf

Hayes, V. D. (2008, July 3). Rhee seeks tenure-pay swap for teachers. The Washington Post, p. B1.

Hess, F. M., & Kelly, A. P. (2007). Learning to lead: What gets taught in principal preparation programs? Teachers College Record, 109(1), 244–274.

Hess, F. M., & Loup, C. (2008). The leadership limbo: Teacher labor agreements in America’s fifty largest school districts. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Available: http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/the_leadership_limbo.pdf

Johnson, J., Arumi, A. M., & Ott, A., (2006). The insiders: How principals and superintendents see public education today (Reality Check 2006, Issue No. 4). New York: Public Agenda.

Levin, H. M. (2006). Why is this so difficult? In F. M. Hess (Ed.), Educational entrepreneurship: realities, challenges, possibilities (p. 165–182). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Orr, M. T. (2002, April). Learning the superintendency: Socialization, negotiation, determination. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1996). Leadership for the schoolhouse: How is it different? Why is it important? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Author’s note: Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are drawn from personal interviews with the author.
Frederick M. Hess is Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Executive Editor of Education Next; rhess@aei.org. He is the author of No Child Left Behind: A Primer (Peter Lang, 2006) and Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

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Turnover in Principalship Focus of Research

Jamie Gillespie, second from left, the principal of John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, N.C., attends a daylong staff development meeting.
— Matt Eich/Luceo Images

On good days, Jamie Gillespie loves her job as a high school principal in Edenton, N.C. On bad days, she contemplates switching careers.
Ms. Gillespie has been a principal for six years: one year at Edenton’s John A. Holmes High School and five years previously in Evansville, Wis. New research suggests that she may be one of the survivors in her profession.
Data available from a handful of states suggest that only about half of beginning principals remain in the same job five years later, and that many leave the principalship altogether when they go.
“I talk to a lot of principals, and it’s becoming more and more rare that you’ll have a principal stay at a school for 15 or 20 years,” Ms. Gillespie said. “Now, you stay three to five years, and you either move to another school or go to the central office. I think it is a problem.”
Whether this apparent churn in the principal’s office signals a problem, progress, or business as usual seems to be a matter for debate, though.

Among those who see the turnover as worrisome is University of Texas researcher Ed J. Fuller, who with his colleague Michelle D. Young published new data this month on the retention rates of newly hired principals in Texas.
“We think the job has outgrown the ability of one person to handle it,” said Mr. Fuller, who is a special research associate for the University Council for Educational Administration, an international consortium of research institutions at the university’s main campus in Austin. “Nobody is staying long enough to make connections or shepherd a reform through,” he added.
But another researcher who has studied principals’ career patterns, Susan M. Gates, a senior economist for the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., is less bothered by the turnover she sees. If more principals are leaving schools now, she said, it could be because the nationwide movement to hold educators responsible for their students’ scores on tests is prompting districts and school boards to oust school leaders who are not producing results.
“If you put someone in the principalship and it just doesn’t work out, do you want to keep them there just because it’s good to have low turnover,” she said, “or do you want to get somebody in there who’s good at the job?”
‘Need to Know Why’
What’s clear is that studies of principals’ career trajectories are long overdue. While research has for years highlighted the large numbers of beginning teachers who leave the classroom in three or four years, no national study has documented the career moves that principals make, according to experts.
Instead, information has been trickling out of state-specific research conducted in Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, and Texas. Many of those studies were funded by the Wallace Foundation, of New York City, which also underwrites coverage of leadership issues in Education Week. Whether the findings can be generalized more widely is an open question.
“If it is true, and principals are not just getting promoted to the district office but are leaving the profession, then we need to know why that is,” said Joseph F. Murphy, who holds the Frank W. Mayborn chair of education at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.
Research shows that, next to teachers, principals may be the most important contributors to students’ learning in school. And there’s also evidence to suggest that principals with strong education backgrounds tend to attract and hire teachers with similar qualifications.
For the Texas study, Mr. Fuller and Ms. Young analyzed employment data from 1995 to 2008 for more than 16,500 public school principals. The average tenure over that time was 4.96 years for elementary school principals, 4.48 years for middle school principals, and 3.38 years for high school principals, according to the study.
That analysis and other research by the University Council for Educational Administration also found that many of those principals were not leaving their schools to head other schools, as might be expected.
A year after leaving, 45 percent of the Texas principals were no longer employed by their school districts, possibly because they had retired or switched careers. Another 32 percent had moved to central-office jobs, while nearly 15 percent were working as assistant principals, guidance counselors, or in some other professional capacity in schools. Another 8 percent were teaching.
Data from Ms. Gates for Illinois and North Carolina, which come from a pair of 2004 studies by RAND, put the number of first-time principals still working as principals in the same state after six years at 48 percent for North Carolina and 38 percent for Illinois.
The North Carolina finding, however, paints a somewhat less bleak picture of principals’ career paths. Only 14 percent of the exiting principals in that state had left the school system altogether.
In Missouri, the data show that half of principals are no longer principals in that state after about five years, while three-quarters of New York state’s beginning principals are no longer at the schools where they started their careers six years later.
Pushed Out or Quitting?
In some of those states, the principal pipeline seems to leak the most from schools with large concentrations of minority students and from low-performing schools. In Texas, the average tenure for principals at elementary, middle, and high schools that ranked in the top fifth in student achievement was a year or more longer at each level than it was for principals of schools in the bottom fifth.
Some experts say that pattern jibes with reports from the field that the testing-and-accountability movement is causing some of the turnover in the principal’s office.
“There are no hard and fast numbers but, from an anecdotal standpoint, you hear regularly of principals being reassigned, moved, or replaced because of displeasure around student performance in the schools they lead,” said Dick Flanary, the senior director for leadership programs and services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va. “There’s no question it has become a difficult job.”
Back at John A. Holmes High School in northeastern North Carolina, Ms. Gillespie agrees.
“People hire principals to come in and raise test scores,” she said, “and they expect change immediately. Anybody that works in organizational management knows that’s not reasonable. Change isn’t going to happen in one or two years, but principals are hired with contracts for one or two years.”
Ms. Gillespie said principals also burn out because of the constant public scrutiny, the 50- to 60-hour weeks, the harried nature of the workday, and a lack of preparation to deal with the day-to-day problems they face.
“Your preparation doesn’t prepare you for what to do about unhappy parents complaining about you at the school board meeting,” she added. “There’s never a course on how to handle difficult employees or teachers refusing to do something.”
Derailing Reforms
Pay may also be a factor in principals’ retention rates, experts say. Under some school district pay scales, new principals earn no more than the most experienced teachers, which can discourage potential candidates from taking the job.
Principals tend to stick around longer when their salaries are higher than those of principals in the surrounding area, said Bruce D. Baker, an associate professor of educational theory, policy, and administration at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and one of the co-authors of the Missouri study.
Growing recognition of the importance of improving principals’ working conditions has been a major thrust of studies supported over the past decade by the Wallace Foundation. The aim of much of that work has been to find ways to restructure the job or better prepare principals so they can devote more time to improving instruction.
Some districts, for instance, are experimenting with strategies for delegating the job’s managerial duties to vice principals or assistant principals, or bringing in new leaders, called school administration managers, to take on those duties. The SAM program now includes nine states, 37 districts, and 180 principals.
According to Brenda J. Turnbull, a principal at Policy Studies Associates, a Washington-based firm that is tracking that effort, the strategy seems to be working: Principals who take part in the SAM program do end up devoting more time to instruction.
The instructional improvements that principals make, however, can be derailed if they leave their posts. Instituting new reforms also becomes more difficult, Ms. Gillespie said, as teachers get used to the constant turnover in the principal’s office.
“Teachers become very independent, and they’re making a lot of the decisions themselves,” she said. “It isn’t easy to wrestle some of that power back.”
Whether changes in the principal’s office are productive hinges on the quality of the departing administrators’ replacements, Mr. Baker said.
“There’s a built-in assumption that bad principals would be replaced with someone better,” he said. “But we also don’t know who’s on the labor market to assume that type of position.”
Vol. 29, Issue 09, Pages 1,14

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New Teacher Contract Hailed as National Model for School Reform

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/10/21/09union.h29.html?tkn=XXRF9ALBaXczAsoj0CI1%2BVLujz1nukPEwoVq

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House Panel Targets Teacher Distribution, Pay

Washington

Lawmakers and teacher spokesmen had a spirited exchange here this week on the equitable distribution of effective teachers, illuminating the contours of a debate that will likely continue as Congress revisits the issue.
Differing opinions about incentive-pay programs, the role of test scores in pay and evaluation, and how prescriptive the federal government should be in seeking to boost teacher effectiveness were aired at a House hearing. It came as the upcoming renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and implementation of the economic-stimulus law are helping to spur such debate.
Improving the distribution of effective teachers to schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students should be a top federal priority, lawmakers agreed.
“It’s stunning that we’re still discussing this topic with this level of engagement in 2009,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which held the hearing. “This is not a mystery. The fact that these inequities exist is well documented. It’s our role, if Title I [funding] is supposed to meet these needs, to sort this out,” he said of the federal school aid for disadvantaged children.
But the lawmakers also acknowledged widely divergent opinions about how to achieve the goal.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, speaks during a Sept. 30 hearing.
—Andrew Councill for Education Week
“We are going to have some differences on how to get there,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. “But I think we can work in a bipartisan way.”
The hearing marked the first time the House education committee has turned its attention specifically to issues of teacher quality since efforts to renew the No Child Left Behind Act—the current version of the ESEA—fell apart in 2007.
At the hearing, lawmakers and witnesses appeared to agree that the law’s “highly qualified” teacher requirements should be updated.
“We can’t talk about moving the most effective teachers around without knowing who the most effective teachers are,” said Layla Avila, the vice president of the New Teacher Project’s teaching-fellows program, a New York City-based initiative that prepares career-changers to enter teaching. “We talk a lot about retention, but we don’t even know if we’re retaining the most effective teachers.”
Bipartisanship on TIF?
The testimony generated much discussion from lawmakers about whether teacher equity would be better served by mentoring and induction programs, which have generally been favored by teachers’ unions, or by structural changes to systems for compensating and evaluating teachers. Several representatives also mused aloud about the appropriateness of federal mechanisms for scaling up such work.
“Is that a role for the federal government, to encourage, if not force, every school system to have an appropriate evaluation system in place?” inquired Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., serving as a witness, promoted the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal initiative to seed performance-pay programs.
Although operational since 2006, TIF has never been formally set down in law. Mr. Price, who introduced for the third time Wednesday a bill to formally authorize the program, said his measure would preserve flexibility for districts to craft features in the programs to attract teachers to low-income schools.
“We’ve either mandated things from on high that don’t necessarily result in higher achievement for kids, or haven’t provided the appropriate incentives” for teachers to move to such schools, he said.
TIF, which received $200 million in additional funding in the economic-stimulus law enacted in February, could be one area ripe for bipartisan work.
The 3.2 million-member National Education Association had been an opponent of the program. But in a recent report, the union said that to improve the equitable distribution of teachers, it would support state and local affiliates who partner with districts to create innovative compensation programs, including those that do so with TIF money.
In testimony to the committee, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel added that the union would encourage its local affiliates to “address barriers” to teacher distribution in contracts by writing a “memorandum of understanding” allowing officials to waive contract provisions that prohibit staffing high-needs schools with “great teachers.”

The testimony did not specify seniority provisions, which many administrators say allow more-experienced—and often more-effective—teachers to move to schools with fewer challenges.
Rep. Miller, nonetheless, appeared to view both statements as an affirmative policy shift on the part of the NEA, representing a willingness by the union to renegotiate elements in contracts, and a softening of its opposition to changes in the traditional compensation system.
The testimony is “a very important signal from NEA that represents a significant departure from their historical position,” the committee chairman said.
Mr. Van Roekel did not return requests seeking a response to Mr. Miller’s stance. Nor was it immediately clear how the NEA would square the new initiatives with internal policy resolutions that eschew certain incentive programs, such as compensation based in whole or part on test scores, or extra pay incentives for hard-to-staff subjects.
Test-Score Controversy
Several issues, including the appropriate use of student test scores in evaluations of teachers, are poised to continue to be controversial. Although the incorporation of the test data has been strongly supported by the Obama administration, a handful of lawmakers expressed concerns that doing so would have a negative impact on disadvantaged students.
Those members included a representative from Nevada, one of four states that maintain a “firewall” between student and teacher data.
“There is a problem that if you just use standardized-test scores, you create a disincentive to teach children with special needs, or children in these low-income schools,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat.
Mr. Van Roekel concurred, saying neither student nor teacher performance should be judged only on the results of a single test.
But Chairman Miller responded strongly to those remarks, noting that administration officials have said test scores should be combined with other measures.
“There is nothing in the Race to the Top that says that a test score would have to be the sole factor in evaluations, so let’s clear the air on that. It’s simply not the fact,” he said of the fund that’s part of the economic-stimulus package.
“I think that it’s a real disservice to the administration [to claim otherwise],” Mr. Miller said, “because Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to broaden that discussion.”
Vol. 29, Issue 06

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