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Don’t Put Education Reform at Risk

Administration’s Innovative Programs Shouldn’t Be Cut

SOURCE: AP/Pat Sullivan

KIPP charter school student Jorge Martina holds up a practice test paper during class in Houston. School models like KIPP, Yes Prep, and Achievement First have achieved unprecedented outcomes for students in poverty and have even outachieved schools with higher-income students.

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A number of the Obama administration’s most promising education initiatives have come under attack in recent weeks as members of Congress have searched for ways to offset $10 billion in funding to prevent teacher layoffs. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) offered an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill to make significant cuts to the Race to the Top, or RTT ($500 million), the Teacher Incentive Fund, or TIF ($200 million), and the Charter Schools Program ($100 million) in order to help fund teachers’ jobs. The amendment passed the House on July 1, and was a very unfortunate setback for education reform.

Members and others have called these programs a luxury when jobs are at stake, but this sentiment is wrong. Since the recession has tightened state and local education budgets it is even more important that dollars are spent wisely and leverage improvements in schools and classrooms. The three programs listed above are among the most promising federal education initiatives ever developed. It would be shortsighted to weaken them just when they’re beginning to yield dividends.

The education status quo clearly hasn’t worked for students in this country. Persistent achievement gaps in all subjects and stagnant reading scores and graduation rates all highlight the need for much more than a business-as-usual approach to education. Clearly no one has the silver bullet for how to improve schools, but doing more of the same and expecting different results makes little sense. RTT, TIF, and the Charter Schools Program are so promising precisely because they invest in innovation and experimentation, without which it isn’t possible to find better ways of educating students.

Helping all students achieve at high levels is just as critical during a recession as it is at any other time. In fact, if we don’t equip our future labor force to hold high-skilled jobs, long-term economic growth will be threatened. President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan’s education initiatives are a critical antidote to continuing ineffective policies and activities.

Here’s a more in-depth look at why these programs are so important and shouldn’t be cut.

Race to the Top

Race to the Top may have only been in existence for a short time. But it’s triggered the most dramatic state education reforms the country has seen in many years.

The Race to the Top program rewards states that commit to implementing significant education improvements in a number of key areas. At least 10 states changed their laws to make themselves more competitive for the competition’s first round before a single dollar was awarded, and 28 states in total reformed their education policies in 2009 and 2010 to prepare for the first two rounds of the competition.

A new law in Colorado, for example, ensures all teachers receive a meaningful evaluation, raises standards for teacher tenure, and ensures that ineffective teachers who don’t improve are not teaching students. And Connecticut recently passed a comprehensive education reform law that includes increases in high school graduation requirements, a requirement that districts create teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student academic growth, and a number of changes to state law to better address the needs of low-achieving schools.

Teacher Incentive Fund

The Teacher Incentive Fund supports competitive grants to states and school districts to implement pay-for-performance programs in high-needs schools. TIF funds may also support pay for teaching in subject shortage areas such as mathematics and science, and career ladders for teachers that offer them additional pay for increased responsibilities.

Critics argue that “merit pay” is a failed policy that has been around since the early 1900s. The truth is that past merit pay programs were destined to fail. They were based on subjective measures of teacher performance and weren’t part of a comprehensive plan to improve teachers’ instructional practice. The kinds of programs TIF now supports are generally comprehensive programs that include professional development, high-quality evaluation, and performance-based compensation. And the new guidance for TIF has an even greater focus on comprehensive approaches.

These kinds of programs are likely to attract and retain talented teachers as well as improve the instructional practice of teachers already in the classroom.

Charter Schools Program

The Charter Schools Program provides grants to states to support the planning and development of new charter schools. This funding is critical, because charter schools usually receive less public funding than traditional public schools. In fact, a recent study found that charter schools received 19.2 percent less funding per pupil on average.

Charter schools critics argue that they don’t produce outcomes that are any better than traditional public schools. This is true, on average, and charter schools should be held accountable for results like other public schools. But the existence of charter schools has spurred the development of some of the most promising school models for educating disadvantaged students. School models like KIPP, Yes Prep, and Achievement First have achieved unprecedented outcomes for students in poverty and have even outachieved schools with higher-income students. A recent study of KIPP middle schools conducted by Mathematica found that the schools had a positive impact on students’ math and reading achievement in all four years after students entered the schools.

These schools wouldn’t exist if states didn’t have charter laws on the books, and educators can’t develop or replicate schools like these without financial support.

Recent momentum for education reform has been unprecedented. It would be unwise and shortsighted to stall that momentum now. Congress should find offsets from ineffective programs to support the funding for teachers’ jobs.

Robin Chait is the Associate Director for Teacher Quality and Cynthia Brown is Vice President for Education Policy at American Progress.

For more, see:

Race to the Top Debate

Education Reforms Will Miss the ‘Top’ Without Broader Consensus

Recruit, Train, and Retain

Status Quo vs. Innovation

An Opportunity for Education Reform

An Aggressive Blueprint for Targeted Reform

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