The program is called RESPECT, an acronym for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching.

The Obama administration is hoping that competition combined with cash will encourage states and school districts to improve the nation’s teaching corps.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Feb. 15 announced details of the administration’s proposed $5 billion program for a new Race to the Top-style competition, with states and districts competing for grant dollars to improve teacher quality, during a town hall meeting with teachers. Among the changes the administration is seeking: higher teaching salaries, compensation tied to performance, and more selective and improved teaching colleges.

The program was included in the budget proposal that President Barack Obama sent to Congress on Feb. 15. It is likely to face obstacles in the gridlocked Congress, however, where some Republicans have complained of federal overreach and overlapping programs in education.

Race to the Top, Obama’s signature education initiative, already has awarded more than $5 billion in competitive grants to states willing to enact certain changes favored by the administration.

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A growing body of research shows the big difference that effective teachers can play in students’ lives, from reducing teenage pregnancies to increasing a student’s lifetime earnings. Duncan frequently notes during speeches that within the next decade, about a million baby boomer teachers will retire, and high-quality teachers are needed to fill those spots. Yet, a report from the McKinsey & Co. global consulting firm found that only about a quarter of new teachers come from the top third of their class. The McKinsey report said prestige and peer group appeal, along with compensation, were factors influencing whether top college students enter teaching.

The proposed competition would focus on both improving the quality of the existing teaching force and better training and recruiting future teachers. Already, some states are enacting some of the changes the Education Department wants, such as awarding tenure based on teacher performance instead of primarily on seniority.

“We need to change society’s views of teaching—from the factory model of yesterday to the professional model of tomorrow—where teachers are revered as thinkers, leaders, and nation-builders,” Duncan said in prepared remarks.

In a nod toward the idea that teaching isn’t seen as a prestigious career, the program is called RESPECT, an acronym for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching. To receive funding, states and districts would have to collaborate with teachers, unions, schools of education, and other stakeholders to reform the field of teaching.

“Our goal is to work with teachers and principals in rebuilding their profession and to elevate the teacher voice in federal, state, and local education policy. Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America’s most important profession, but also America’s most respected profession,” Duncan said.

The administration’s proposal builds on President Obama’s State of the Union speech when he said: “Give [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making.”

For more news about teacher quality, see:

States strengthening teacher evaluation standards

Hey, teachers: The Heritage Foundation thinks you’re overpaid

Four fallacies of the ‘teachers are overpaid’ argument

Details of the program will be developed through budget negotiations with Congress and the competition process itself, but the proposal considers a broad range of reforms, an Education Department press release said, including:

• Reforming teacher colleges and making them more selective.

• Creating new career ladders for teachers.

• Linking earnings more closely to performance, rather than simply longevity or credentials.

• Compensating teachers for working in challenging learning environments.

• Making teacher salaries more competitive with other professions.

• Improving professional development and providing time for collaboration.

• Providing teachers with greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability.

• Building evaluation systems based on multiple measures, not just test scores.

• Reforming tenure to raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability.

Jennifer Allen, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said in an eMail message to the Associated Press that Republicans support competition in education but also efficient use of taxpayer funds. Citing a Government Accountability Office report from last year that found 82 existing teacher quality programs administered by 10 federal agencies, she said that instead of creating another new program, a bill sponsored by Kline would consolidate many of the programs into a flexible grant that states and districts could use to recruit and retain good teachers.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said he supports the administration’s proposal and appreciates that it recognizes that salaries in teaching need to be competitive with other sectors.

“We always worry about the details and how we implement this and that’s really important, and we want to work with them on that,” he said.

On the issue of teacher tenure, Van Roekel has said in the past that the nation’s children would be much better served if education reform efforts were more focused on making sure teachers are adequately trained, certified, and licensed at the start of their careers, instead of targeting them years later.

“Until we start dealing with quality at the front door, instead of saying we want to be able to hire anybody, make a lot of mistakes, and then make it easy to get rid of them, we are going the wrong way,” he has said.

After Obama’s State of the Union address, education historian Diane Ravitch blogged about an apparent contradiction in the president’s thinking about teacher quality.

“He said that he wanted teachers to ‘stop teaching to the test.’ He also said that teachers should teach with ‘creativity and passion.’ And he said that schools should reward the best teachers and replace those who weren’t doing a good job,” she wrote. “To ‘reward the best’ and ‘fire the worst,’ states and districts are relying on test scores. The Race to the Top says they must. Deconstruct this. Teachers would love to ‘stop teaching to the test,’ but Race to the Top makes test scores the measure of every teacher. If teachers take the president’s advice … their students might not get higher test scores every year, and teachers might be fired.”

For more news about teacher quality, see:

States strengthening teacher evaluation standards

Hey, teachers: The Heritage Foundation thinks you’re overpaid

Four fallacies of the ‘teachers are overpaid’ argument