Will “Race to the Top” Money Talk Loud Enough to Drown Out Union Complaints?

Will “Race to the Top” Money Talk Loud Enough to Drown Out Union Complaints?

On July 24, President Obama laid out a plan for incentive-based education reform in a speech at the United States Department of Education. The incentives come in the form of $4 billion in federal “Race to the Top” money up for grabs by schools as part of his Economic Recovery Act. To get this money, states such as California may have to make some changes.

Obama’s plan calls for states and school districts to compete for the grants based on performance in four areas: creating rigorous academic standards, recruiting and retaining high quality teachers, turning around underperforming schools, and building data systems to track student performance.

While money isn’t the only solution for America’s failing schools, Obama’s proposal does have the potential to make a difference for education reform in California. No state can qualify for Race to the Top grants if that state “makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations.” According to President Obama, “success should be judged by results, and data is a powerful tool to determine results. We can’t ignore facts. We can’t ignore data.”

This qualification currently prevents California from applying for the grants. A 2006 law created a data-collection system for the state. When the law was passed, unions insisted that the law include an assurance that data in the system may not be used “for purposes of pay, promotion, sanction, or personnel evaluation of an individual teacher or group of teachers, or of any other employment related decisions related to individual teachers.”

Unions instead prefer seniority pay and more “holistic” means of teacher evaluation. This usually means that teachers, when being considered for increased pay, are evaluated by committees of other teachers, most of whom are also union members. Such forms of evaluation often ignore actual classroom performance and promote teachers regardless of the success of students in their classroom.

Obama’s attempt to tie teacher evaluation to concrete statistics on student performance is laudable and an important step toward classrooms staffed by highly qualified teachers. If Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stick to their guns, they might force states like California to reevaluate laws that prevent data-driven evaluation.

Indeed, Gloria Romero, the Democratic chairwoman of the state’s education committee, has already scheduled a hearing to determine if the law needs to be revised. According to Romero, “We would be letting down an entire generation of students if we failed to act.”

Given the current financial crisis across the country, and especially in California, money tied to such qualifications becomes an even more powerful incentive to change. Though the qualifications are only tied to the Race to the Top grants rather than all federal funds, school districts desperate for more money might start to pressure lawmakers to repeal the prohibitive law, despite union opposition.

It is possible that the enticement of extra federal money might just break the stranglehold teachers’ unions have on education policy in California. But this will only happen if Obama and Duncan continue to insist that data drive teacher evaluation. This will require the administration to butt heads with powerful national teachers’ unions – a mainstay of the Democratic power base. Obama clearly recognizes the importance of these unions to his party.

In his speech he praised union efforts to improve American education. And when he discussed data-driven evaluation he added several complicating factors. He emphasized the need to “bring teachers into the process” and to “use tests as just one part of a broader evaluation.” Such phrases open the door for unions and others to avoid data entirely.

If Race to the Top grants are going to make a difference, President Obama and his Education Secretary need to make sure that data really does drive teacher evaluation, even if doing so means distancing themselves from unions who oppose such a move. Only then will states like California be forced to revise their laws if they want to see federal money. And only then will teachers be evaluated by what matters most – how well they teach the students entrusted to them.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.