“Race to the Top” Funds Structured to Encourage States to Drop Restrictions on Performance Data

The extent to which American schools perform well is a legitimate topic of national concern. But education policy is largely set at the state level in this country. Which means that in terms of federal policy there’s a premium on finding clever ways to nudge state governments toward dropping misguided policies. Dana Goldstein reports on one such clever initiative:

The complicated dance between Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the national teachers’ unions continued today. On a conference call to officially roll-out the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” education reform competition, Duncan said states are “ineligible” for the grants if they have laws on the books prohibiting student performance from affecting teacher assessment. New York and Wisconsin are two such states, and teachers’ unions have long lobbied for such laws. In an attempt to encourage states to overturn these prohibitions, the Department of Education will be handing out Race to the Top grants in two phases over the next two years, allowing state legislatures time to revisit issues of teacher compensation.

The New York version of this rule, at a minimum, was snuck onto the books with no debate or public awareness and it’s bad news. You certainly could imagine a scheme to use student performance data in compensation or tenure decisions that wasn’t a good idea. But the idea that all such schemes should be categorically prohibited is nuts. The research is pretty unambiguous that some teachers produce much better students achievement than others. Insofar as schools are able to find ways to identify the highly effective teachers and give them incentive to stay, while declining to tenure the ineffective teachers, the quality of school performance should get substantially better over time.

Unfortunately, developing good systems for gathering and analyzing data isn’t all that easy. But we desperately need to be working on ways to do that job better, not throwing new roadblocks in the way.