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Quitting the race

Education | Union opposition and quality concerns drive several states to resist an innovative federal education competition

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

You walk into a classroom and the students aren't engaged. They're passing notes, they're not on the right page, they're not paying attention. The teacher is not calling on different students or allowing enough time for students to answer after she asks a question. Her lesson plans are disorganized. She's not stopping disruptive behavior. She's not starting class on time or she's ending too soon. She's not moving ahead students who have mastered the content. She's not helping students who are behind.

This is how Alexis Tibbetts, superintendent of Okaloosa County Schools in Florida, said she can spot a bad teacher-through simple classroom observation. And then, of course, there are test scores. A teacher's job is to help students learn, said Tibbetts: "That's your job-to increase student skills in reading, math, science." If students don't show gains in learning, then their teacher isn't doing the job.

When the Florida legislature was debating a bill that would reform teacher tenure law, Tibbetts told a state Senate committee about the difficulty of firing an incompetent teacher. It takes three years-from the time she noticed the teacher was having problems to the firing. First she had to set up an improvement team including two other teachers and a district official. Those teachers had to take time out of their schedules, which they would have used for class prep, to observe the struggling teacher, document what they saw, and meet with her once a month. The union has to agree that the teacher needs improvement. More meetings, more documentation for a full three years before the teacher goes. Meanwhile, every year this goes by, Tibbetts said, "These same teachers are teaching 140 kids. Every year you have to decide, would you want one of your kids to be in one of these people's classes?"

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This question conflicted the Florida state government as it struggled to reform its laws to win a hefty federal education grant. That grant program, called Race to the Top (RTTT), is prompting states across the country to face such questions as they compete for a share of $4.35 billion.

The money from RTTT comes with a price. The application emphasizes that states adopt internationally benchmarked standards; build a data system that measures student success and gives educators ways to improve; work to find, train, keep, and reward effective educators; and aggressively turn around low-achieving schools. Some states poured thousands of hours and dozens of staff members into writing applications that were hundreds of pages long. But in Phase 1 of the competition, only Delaware and Tennessee received a cent for the effort. States had until June 1 to apply in Phase 2, and some states balked. Ten states opted out in Phase 1 and several states that lost in Phase 1 have decided not to reapply.

Some states don't apply because they don't think they can win. Others don't want to win at all. Indiana belongs in the first category, blaming unions for its first failed application. RTTT favors plans that have strong union support for reform, and reviewers criticized Indiana's application for lacking it.

In April, Indiana Department of Education Superintendent Tony Bennett and the Indiana State Teachers Union (ISTA) brawled over reapplying. Bennett requested union support for five proposals, two of which especially rankled union leaders: requiring 51 percent of teacher evaluations to be based on student growth data, and requiring the evaluation to be a part of hiring processes. Bennett also issued an ultimatum: If the union didn't unequivocally support these proposals, the state would not apply in Phase 2. He gave the ISTA one week to reply.

Six days later, ISTA president Nate Schnellenberger shot back that the ISTA could not support the proposals, that the application needed a major reworking instead of minor changes, and that it would be happy to collaborate in a "meaningful discussion." Bennett then invited Schnellenberger and Indiana Federation of Teachers president Rick Muir-without their staff-to meet with him in his office. He also invited the media.

Schnellenberger refused to come. In a letter he said the plan took an "adversarial tone . . . toward teachers" and that the union would not attend "a media event arranged for the purpose of strong-arming the ISTA." He later told me, "To me that's a media circus." Creating a winning application would take days, not hours, he said: "For [Bennett] not to recognize that tells me he wasn't really serious about doing that. He was just looking for a scapegoat."

Bennett then announced that Indiana was dropping out of the race because if it couldn't get union support, its application wouldn't succeed. Bennett told me, "The federal government is speaking directly to the need for states to engage in bold reforms. In order to make a case to get fed money and have bold reforms, one of two things has to be present. You either have to have a legislative framework in your state that affords you the opportunity to make those bold reforms, or in the absence of that you have to have tremendous union buy-in. If you have both you're in great shape. You need to have one or the other. We have neither."

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