President Obama’s New Education Reform Plan

Building on Earlier Successes, Next in Line Are More Effective Teachers

Glenda Partee explains how the president’s competitive grant proposal comprehensively targets structural problems plaguing teaching.

Teacher Kim Hemmis reads a book to her first grade class at Will Rogers Elementary School in Houston. President Obama's proposed changes to the federal competetive grant program will ensure teacher quality and a better education for our nation's children. (AP/David J. Phillip)
Teacher Kim Hemmis reads a book to her first grade class at Will Rogers Elementary School in Houston. President Obama's proposed changes to the federal competetive grant program will ensure teacher quality and a better education for our nation's children. (AP/David J. Phillip)

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President Barack Obama unveiled a significant new teacher initiative following his most recent State of the Union address—one worthy of bipartisan support. “Teachers matter,” the president said, “so instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal.” That deal offered by the president earlier this week would dramatically improve the quality of teaching in our nation’s schools in a strategic and comprehensive way. Now the task is for Congress to take up the president’s plan and pass it into law.

President Obama wants to launch a new federal competitive grant program for attracting, preparing, supporting, and rewarding great teachers to help students learn. The program would challenge states and school districts to work with teachers and their unions to change the teaching profession in the fundamental ways necessary to ensure a good—not an uneven or sub-par—education for our children.

The proposed grant program calls for states and districts to undertake a comprehensive set of five reforms including:

  • Reforming colleges of education and making these schools more selective
  • Creating new career ladders for teachers to become more effective and ensure their earnings are tied more closely to performance
  • Establishing more leadership roles and responsibilities for teachers, improving professional development, and providing autonomy to teachers in exchange for greater responsibility
  • Creating evaluation systems based on multiple measures rather than just on test scores
  • Reshaping tenure to protect good teachers and promote accountability

This is not a menu approach to reform but rather a comprehensive one. Colleges of education must provide rigorous courses of study and entry to these programs must be more selective. Elevating the quality and status of teacher training will help end the perception that teaching is an easy, academically undemanding profession and will ensure a higher caliber of new teachers.

In addition, teaching should be a competitive profession once teachers enter the classroom, with opportunities to move into different and more demanding positions including leadership roles. Currently its structure is flat, with opportunities for advancement available only by leaving the classroom to become a principal or administrator. And under the proposed initiative, states and districts must create new career ladders for teachers to allow a wider range of job opportunities as they develop and to incentivize them to improve.

As in other professions, earnings must be tied to performance and level of responsibility. Currently this is not the case. For this to happen states and districts in collaboration with teachers and unions must work to develop evaluation systems that are fair and rigorous. Teachers deserve the opportunity to get feedback on their practice and, in the interests of their students, opportunities for improvement. Too few talented college graduates and career changers will enter teaching as long as ineffective teachers are allowed to remain and compensation is oblivious to performance.

Finally, reshaping tenure is important because current policies for dismissing ineffective teachers are prohibitively lengthy, often expensive, and largely disconnected from teacher performance or student achievement.

This set of reforms is a big task that will require a lot of heavy lifting from participating states, school districts, teachers unions, and universities, all of which have often had contentious relationships or at least have not always come to good accord. It will, however, bring a level of accountability into the profession that currently does not exist.

A big carrot will be required to make these changes, especially for cash-strapped states and districts. Federal funds for the initiative should equal its broad scope to fully incentivize the stakeholders to achieve real change in these critical areas. Congress will have to step up to the plate to appropriate sufficient funds for the program.

But this is one case where resources spent wisely can truly reform the system and reap economic benefits for students and thus for our country. A recent study by a pair of Harvard University education professors, Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer, finds that effective teachers will not only improve student achievement in school but also students’ college success and lifetime earnings.

The deal offered by President Obama will require that we jettison traditions of how things have always been. It will require all involved to move beyond established turf, acknowledge the need for radical overhaul, and take the necessary steps toward real reform. If the states, districts, teachers, unions, and colleges of education accept this challenge, then their actions will begin to get at the source of the seemingly intractable problems that plague our schools. These reforms would change for the better the way we:

This proposed initiative by the president, if fully funded by Congress and implemented well by states and school districts, will bring teaching into the 21st century as a dynamic profession competitive with other professions, where individuals are trained well, rewarded for their work in line with their effort and performance, and the product of their labor is evident in a strong and productive America. Our children need this type of direct action to ensure they are prepared to contribute fully and effectively in a changing global economy.

Glenda Partee is Associate Director for Teacher Quality in the Education team at the Center for American Progress.

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Glenda L. Partee

Associate Director, Teacher Quality