(This post was co-authored by Evelyn B. Stacey, Education Studies Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California.)
This week Education Secretary Arne Duncan released the rules states must follow to be eligible for a share of the $4.3 billion in Race to the Top Funds, part of the State Fiscal Stabilization Funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Up to now, Secretary Duncan’s reforms have been widely embraced as bold and innovative (albeit not by all of us). But when it comes to new rules concerning highly qualified teachers, the honeymoon’s over according to the New York Times. The federal No Child Left Behind Act signed into law in 2002 under President George W. Bush was supposed to stop states’ “longstanding and reprehensible practice of shunting unprepared and unqualified teachers into the schools serving the poorest students.” It didn’t. Then Race to the Top was supposed to do the job. It doesn’t. As the Times summed up, “Education advocates inside and outside Congress expected that the stabilization fund application would be explicit and ambitious on the issue of teacher equity. They were understandably disappointed to find the issue couched, once again, in euphemistic language that asks the states to describe in vague terms whether the teacher corps is ‘highly qualified’.” Elsewhere, Education Trust president Kati Haycock noted, “It’s difficult to understand how the department…could fall so short on something so important. She added, “Instead of seizing on the opportunity to force truth-telling about unfair teacher-assignment practices, the Department of Education has chosen a reporting metric that papers over the problem.” Writing for the National Journal, Education Equality Project director Ellen Winn recommends substantive measures to better ensure teacher quality, including certification based on actual student learning gains; performance pay; differentiated pay for hard-to-staff subjects such as math, science and special education; and pension reforms. All students deserve access to top-quality teachers. Thus far, neither the federal nor state governments, not to mention organizations purporting to represent teachers or schools of education, has managed to get such a fundamental component of education right. After decades of dithering, it’s time to end what Secretary Duncan himself has called “tired arguments and divided by the politics of the moment.” At its heart, Race to the Top is supposed to be about competition. If all parents could choose their children’s schools, they’d pick the ones with the best teachers. Faced with the possibility of losing students and their education funding, schools would have a powerful incentive to hire truly effective teachers-as opposed to merely “qualified” ones-and treat them well.