Proposals to improve teacher and principal quality produced mixed results in the second and final round of the federal Race to the Top grant competition, according to three separate analyses by education groups.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in March urged applicants to focus their round-two proposals on boosting teacher quality, using student achievement data, and turning around the lowest-performing schools.
All 37 round-two applications stressed pay for performance under the rubric of “improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance.” The U.S. Department of Education announced 19 round two finalists in July and named 10 winners on August 24.
Some Dubious Winners
According to an analysis by the Partnership for Learning, all 10 round-two winners require student growth data to be part of annual evaluations for teachers and principals. Florida and Rhode Island require student growth to count for more than half of the evaluation. Washington, DC, Georgia, Hawaii, and Maryland require student growth to count for 50 percent of the evaluation, while New York requires student growth to count for 40 percent of the evaluation.
Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Ohio have a more elastic standard, requiring only that student growth be “a significant determinant” in an educator’s annual review.
The National Council on Teacher Quality graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia on five areas: Delivering well-prepared teachers, expanding the teaching pool, identifying effective teachers, teacher retention, and “exiting ineffective teachers.”
Race to the Top winners Ohio and New York earned a D+, Maryland earned a D, and Washington, DC and Hawaii both received a D-.
Paying for High Demand
A study by the Education Commission of the States examined applications from 36 states and the District of Columbia. ECS looked at three categories of performance-pay proposals. The first, state-led, was used by nine states. If approved, funding would be used to identify and pay high-performing teachers—directly to teachers, indirectly to the Local Education Agency (LEAs), or both. The financial incentives would be mostly focused on schools and subject areas in greatest need of highly skilled teachers.
For example, New York, one of the winners, wrote that it would use part of its $700 million grant to set up a $30 million fund designed to reward teachers and principals who choose to work in schools in areas most in need.
Eighteen states proposed pilot programs through which to launch the initiatives to develop models that would later be implemented statewide. Of the pilot group, Georgia, Maryland, Hawaii, and Rhode Island received grants.
Nine states proposed granting Local Education Agencies discretion to implement performance compensation programs free from state rules and mandates. Of those, only Massachusetts won a grant.
Performance Pay Lauded
Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, says performance pay is superior to the current, union-mandated model of paying teachers merely on the basis of seniority.
“Performance pay rewards teachers based on effectiveness and a teacher’s capacity to improve student learning,” Burke explained. “Not only would performance pay better compensate high-performing teachers, it would allow school districts to target resources more efficiently.”
Neal McCluskey, associate director of education policy at the Cato Institute, says performance or merit pay is “almost a no-brainer.”
“If I were running a company I would certainly reward employees based on their performance,” he said. “But it’s very hard to do that effectively in public schooling, where everything must be done bureaucratically and where there are no customers taking their money from schools that don’t work.
“Where there is no free market, performance pay will do little good,” McCluskey added.
Dollars Were ‘Main Driver’
Burke says the Obama administration deserves credit for pushing states to include performance-pay proposals in their applications, but she says the administration probably undermined that objective by insisting on “buy-in” from teachers unions.
“I think many states genuinely want to implement reforms such as merit pay, but when the administration put such a high priority on ‘stakeholder buy-in’ in the application process, teachers unions were able to set the high-water mark for reform, which has probably blunted more substantial reform efforts,” she said.
McCluskey says the states would have implemented merit pay regardless of Race to the Top, but the lure of federal aid acted as an incentive.
“Clearly the main driver—or at least what put merit pay over the top—in most states was the pursuit of [Race to the Top] dollars,” he said
Regardless of the outcome, McCluskey says Race to the Top was a step in the wrong direction for the states.
“For one thing, all the changes that have been made are largely motivated by pursuit of federal bucks, not real reformist desire,” he said. “It’s a forced conversion.”
“Many of the changes have been cosmetic, altering a few things around the edges but doing little to enable real change,” McCluskey explained. “It’s lifting charter caps when charters face much bigger obstacles, or eliminating some barriers to meaningful teacher evaluations while doing nothing to actually get good evaluations.”
McCluskey warns the real legacy of Race to the Top may be unconstitutional federal overreach in education policy. Citing states’ rapid embrace of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, McCluskey issued a dire prediction.
“It could very well be the final nail in the coffin of locally controlled education and the beginning of a uniform federal schooling system,” he said. “That’s the last thing our already stagnant, monopolistic education system needs.”
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.