RPM's Take on the Teacher and Principal Provisions of Blueprint for Reform

Last Updated: March 26, 2010

This article appeared in the March 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Blueprint opens its section on teachers by saying it will elevate the teaching profession. But the only provisions related to teachers are requirements that states rate teachers and principals based on the test score growth of their students. In fact, Blueprint would require states to differentiate the “effectiveness” of all teachers in at least three performance categories based in “significant part” on student growth, which is defined in RTT (but not Blueprint) as at least one year’s gain on test achievement. At least one proposed grant program described in Blueprint would also require states to pay teachers on test-based measures of effectiveness.

Blueprint says it will maintain the NCLB provisions related to Highly Qualified Teachers as states transition to the new measures of effectiveness, “but with additional flexibility,” suggesting that teachers whose students demonstrate required test score growth may not be required to earn a major or pass a test in each subject they teach as is required by NCLB.

Comment: Nothing in Blueprint or RTT acknowledges the statistical problems with determining effectiveness based on just one year’s worth of data. Evidence from state systems that track student test scores to individual teachers suggests that all teachers’ so-called “performance” fluctuates from year to year and that several years of data is needed to make meaningful conclusions. Further, some teachers who are successful with some groups of students are less so with others, and vice versa. At the very least, and despite a little lip service to the contrary in Blueprint, rating teachers puts the onus for improving student learning on individual teachers rather than on the entire system of schools in a district, community, or state and it does little to address students’ out-of-school learning challenges.

Further, we don’t see how Blueprint’s teacher provisions could be carried out without pinning an effectiveness label on every teacher. The extent to which the label will be made public or follow teachers in their career is not clear but it would almost certainly be a matter of record somewhere.

Even more importantly, because student test scores are so closely related to family income, the teacher proposals in Blueprint will increase the teacher hiring advantages of schools in affluent, well-supported neighborhoods, where most parents are college graduates and have the resources to tend closely to their children’s learning.

Teacher Distribution

At some level Blueprint understands the teacher distribution problem because it would require states to “develop meaningful plans to ensure equitable distribution of principals and teachers that receive at least “effective” rating.” States that are not successful will have to develop more rigorous plans and additional strategies. No time frame or distribution targets are indicated. Districts that do not improve equitable distribution would be required to submit new plans and spend funds solely on ensuring their evaluation systems meet teacher effectiveness requirements and on activities aimed at improving distribution.

Comment: Getting the best teachers to the schools where they’re needed most is already a requirement of NCLB. But the current law, just like Blueprint, has no teeth. There’s almost no effort anywhere to address this vexing problem, and high needs schools and districts are left on their own un-level playing fields to compete for teachers.

The reality is that many good teachers do work in high-poverty, low-performing schools. But many, many teachers only stay in those schools until they can get a job in an easier, and usually higher-paying, school.

Blueprint treats teacher mal-distribution as if it were an intra-district inequity. We applaud attempts to push districts to place teachers more fairly among schools; such efforts may make a difference in large diverse districts. But much of the teacher distribution problem is between, not within, districts.

Low pay and tough working conditions, just like low student performance, are by-products of poverty. These problems are compounded in high poverty rural districts, which are often isolated and offer few other amenities such as good housing or job opportunities for spouses. Teachers tend to go where working conditions are easier, pay is better, and students face fewer challenges. Nothing in Blueprint acknowledges, much less addresses, these teacher distribution factors.

What would help are programs to pay teachers, including already employed teachers, higher salaries to work in the hardest circumstances; efforts to provide teachers with direct and meaningful supports and better working conditions; and genuine efforts to address the roots of poverty that shape so many students’ out-of-school learning challenges.

Teacher Preparation (Pathways)

Blueprint says it will strengthen pathways into teaching and leadership in high-need schools and it continues competitive grants for teacher preparation. The new requirement here, as in RTT, is that teacher preparation programs will be rated on the test scores of the K–12 students their graduates teach. States will have to track and publish this data.

Comment: Although Blueprint says it wants teacher preparation programs to target high need schools, the real incentives are for teachers to go to the schools where students will score well. Requirements that states collect data on the “job placement, student growth and retention outcomes of graduates” of various teacher preparation programs won’t do much to encourage those programs to send graduates to the most challenging schools where students are least likely to score well.

Despite the rhetoric, almost everything in Blueprint drives teachers, and the institutions that prepare them, to serve the richest and easiest schools and classrooms.

Read more from the March 2010 Rural Policy Matters.