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Innovative Ideas, Meet Hackneyed Battle Lines

The day before President Obama spoke in Madison, Wisconsin, about the pressing need to improve America's teachers, a report was released on the same topic at a conference in Washington's swanky Capitol Hilton. The task force that wrote the report was chaired by Minnesota Governor (and rumored 2012 presidential candidate) Tim Pawlenty and included such education policy heavyweights as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The report's 20 recommendations for improving teacher effectiveness include providing more funding for alternative teacher training and certification routes (like Teach for America), requiring school districts to create teacher evaluations contingent on student achievement, and using those evaluations to help determine teacher salaries and make tenure decisions.

Strikingly, though, the report wasn't endorsed by the full task force. Reasons, according to conference speakers, ranged from a) "there just wasn't time" for all of the members to get their organizations to sign on to the document, to b) it was enough for the full body to have endorsed the "gist" of the report. But it turns out that the schisms on the task force run deeper than the leadership let on. EdWeek reported on Wednesday that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the nation's largest teachers' unions, and a task force member, has called the report "disrespectful." In a letter to the task force's leadership, she said its work "has focused almost exclusively on how teachers need to change rather than how the system and all its actors need to change."

This isn't surprising, considering the ongoing battle between teachers' unions and progressive education reformers who advocate implementing performance-based pay schemes and firing teachers whose evaluations show ineffectiveness. But it is disheartening, considering that fact that, for the vast majority of the task force's recommendations to be implemented, state legislatures or boards of education would have to revise current policies or write new ones--which would require numerous negotiations with local unions.

These hurdles were evident in various city-based meetings at the conference. In a discussion about Atlanta's new teacher evaluation and tracking system, which includes plans to fire the bottom 10 percent of the city's lowest-performing teachers, a man from San Francisco lamented, "We'd love to remove our bottom ten percent of low performers, but we struggle to remove the bottom quarter of the bottom one percent" because of union pressure. Similarly, in a discussion about D.C.'s new teacher assessment plan, called IMPACT, and plans to fire teachers who receive very low evaluations, a representative from New York declared herself "jealous." (Washington has a congressional mandate to create a teacher evaluation system, meaning that, while the school district consulted with the local union in the process of creating IMPACT, it didn't need to engage in formal labor negotiations.)

There's hope that, with states vying for Race to the Top (RTTT) money by agreeing to meet the competitive program's standards--including tying teacher assessments to student achievement data--the ideas in this week's report might find footing in some states and school districts. (The task force's leadership even said that they hoped the report would help guide RTTT applications.) And there are some school districts--Denver is a good example--in which unions already support performance-based salary plans. But, generally speaking, this week's conference and the news surrounding it proved that the conflicts over new ideas remain the same old beefs.