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Harkin ESEA Bill Would Require Evaluation Reform

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Senate education chairman Tom Harkin has finally released his committee's bill for renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now known as No Child Left Behind.)

Here's a look at the key pieces with respect to teacher-quality policy:

Teacher Evaluation

The big federal debate with regard to teacher evaluations has been whether the federal government will require, as a condition of receiving Title II teacher-quality funds, states and districts to set up new evaluation systems; or whether it will merely encourage them to do so.

The bill goes for the former option. Every state receiving a cut of Title II funds would have to create at least four statewide ratings categories for teachers and principals, and could also set other parameters.

Districts, to receive subgrants from the state, would then have to create the teacher-evaluation systems, based "in significant part" on evidence of improved student achievement, as well as teacher observations. The bill defines student achievement as information from state tests in subjects and grades where they exist, and other measures that are "rigorous and comparable" across schools. Districts would need to have their systems in place within five years of a completed law's passage.

It's worth noting that this requirement would still leave some room for locals to experiment. Think of it as similar to Colorado's approach to teacher evaluation, which sets out some basic requirements but lets districts flesh out many of the details.

The bill stands somewhat in contrast with the teacher-quality bill outlined by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and others. That proposal made teacher evaluation reform an allowable use of federal teacher-quality funds, but not a requirement.

Clearly, this will be an area ripe for some discussion up on Capitol Hill. So far the National Education Association seems to prefer Sen. Alexander's approach making evaluation reform optional, not mandatory. The American Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, has been pretty quiet so far about how it feels about all of these proposals.

As for actual spending, districts could use their funds to set up the evaluation system, support mentoring and induction, performance pay or career ladders, or make personnel decisions about teachers.

'Equitable Distribution' of Teachers

The bill puts an emphasis on requiring states and districts to use the results of their teacher evaluation system to report on the percentage, by performance category, and retention rate, by performance category, of the teacher force. They'd be required to try to equalize disparities among high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority schools, and would have the allowable uses of teacher-quality funds curtailed if they didn't make progress.

Class Size Reduction

One of the under-the-table debates about teacher quality has been whether districts could continue to use their teacher-quality funds to reduce class sizes. (Something like a third of Title II-A funds are used for this purpose.) The bill would allow this but only insofar as it aligns to the research on class size, which most likely means the findings from the STAR study, where the K-3 classes studied were quite small (13 to 17 students).

It is worth noting that similar parameters were put on the federal class-size-reduction program in the late 1990s but removed when No Child Left Behind came along, so this would basically tighten things up again.

Comparability

The bill would require teachers' salaries to be taken into account when performing the Title I comparability calculation. (Basically, this would require districts to send more of their own money up front to schools where teachers are paid less, in order to draw down federal funds).

Competitive Programs

For the competitive teacher quality programs, the bill would:

• Move Troops to Teachers to the Department of Defense;
• Authorize the Teacher Incentive Fund, a differentiated-compensation initiative; and
• Authorize a new "Teacher Pathways" program, similar to the one that the Obama administration has proposed. It would give grants to nonprofits or higher education institutions who work in partnerships with districts and states to selective recruit teacher candidates, train them in high-needs subjects and place them in high-needs schools.

'Highly Qualified' Teachers

The bill would keep these provisions in place, but would waive them (except for new teachers) once districts had operational teacher-evaluation systems in place.
It would also permit teachers still in alternative routes to be considered highly qualified for up to three years. (This exception was not in the NCLB statute; Education Department regulations permitted it, to the dismay of some.)

HQT, you'll remember, is absent from Sen. Alexander's bill.

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