The Next Race to the Top? Arne Duncan Outlines Vision for Teacher Reform

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched a $5 billion proposal Wednesday aimed at improving the teaching profession at every level. It would be modeled after the Race to the Top program.

The Obama administration is focused on teaching again - but this time it's hoping to reform the entire profession itself.

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke to teachers at a town-hall meeting to launch a $5 billion proposal that would try to improve the teaching profession at every level, from the recruitment and training process to the career ladder and pay and tenure systems.

"Our goal is to support teachers in rebuilding their profession - and to elevate the teacher voice in shaping federal, state, and local education policy," Secretary Duncan told the teachers, according to prepared remarks. "Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America's most important profession - [but also] America's most respected profession."

The program, dubbed the RESPECT Project (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), would be structured like another version of Race to the Top: a competitive grant program that would ask states to submit proposals.

The details would be hammered out in discussions with Congress, but Duncan has promised that it would look comprehensively at the teaching profession, touching on a few main areas:

- Reforming teacher colleges and making them more selective.

- Reforming compensation - including tying earnings to performance, paying teachers more for working in tough environments, and making teacher salaries more competitive with other professions.

- Creating new career ladders for teachers (in which they could develop some leadership and administrative skills but still be in the classroom).

- Reforming tenure.

- Improving professional development, giving teachers more time for collaboration, and giving some teachers more autonomy.

- Building teacher evaluation systems based on multiple measures.

At this point, the project is just a proposal - and it is couched inside President Obama's American Jobs Act proposal, which Republicans declared a non-starter. It's thus difficult to imagine it becoming a reality anytime soon.

But, despite the uncertain nature of the proposal, it's jump- starting a conversation on what the teaching profession needs - and is getting buy-in from diverse corners, in part because it includes tough new accountability standards for the profession as well as increased pay, support, training, and respect for teachers.

"They're focusing on both higher standards and better rewards for teachers," says Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, which recruits and trains teachers for high-needs schools. "You can't do one but not the other."

Mr. Daly also lauds the structure of the proposal, saying that a competitive grant program will give incentives to states to "do the difficult stuff."

The program has also received early praise from unions.

"This proposal represents a critical first-step in ensuring that all students have access to a range of high-quality resources, including qualified and licensed teachers who are empowered to innovate and inspired to take on ever-growing challenges," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, in a statement. "We are particularly pleased that others beyond our organization are beginning to acknowledge the comprehensive set of supports that schools need to improve and to recognize that there is no 'silver-bullet' when it comes to transforming schools."

Some of what the administration is proposing - including better teacher evaluations, more accountability in exchange for tenure, and a compensation system more closely tied to student performance - has been on its agenda for a while and has been part of Race to the Top or other federal programs. …