Image: High school teacher Dave Harswick
Mike Roemer  /  AP
High school teacher Dave Harswick stands in front of the Green Bay Education Association office. Harswick says he favors Wisconsin changing its laws in order to qualify for education stimulus money.
updated 9/9/2009 7:02:43 PM ET 2009-09-09T23:02:43

Three cash-strapped states may find themselves left at the starting line in the competition for more than $4 billion in education stimulus funding if they don't amend laws that prevent student test results from being tied to teacher evaluations.

That requirement is a cornerstone of Obama's education reform efforts and has set off a rush to change the laws before time runs out on the funds. Obama believes so strongly that teachers are key to fixing schools and helping kids learn that he refuses to dole out the stimulus dollars if states don't heed his wishes.

California, Wisconsin and Nevada each have laws that ban tying test scores to teacher reviews. While California and Wisconsin lawmakers are scrambling to lift the ban, Nevada may not be able to remove its restriction in time for the money because its Legislature won't be back in session until 2011.

New York also bars test scores from being a factor in teacher tenure, but this restriction is more narrow and not expected to hurt the state's chances to receive the funds under Obama's "Race to the Top" funding program.

The administration hopes the program will improve student achievement, boost the performance of minority students, who lag their white peers, and raise graduation rates.

Unions long opposed
Teachers unions have long opposed linking test scores with evaluations and teacher pay because they believe it's unfair to judge a teacher's performance on a single test. They also note the tests can be flawed, don't test every subject, and that many students learn from more than one teacher.

"I don't think the best approach in teacher evaluation comes from students' test scores," said Dave Harswick, a high school history teacher and union leader in Green Bay, Wis. "It can be part of the picture, but it shouldn't be the whole picture."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said state laws that prohibit linking student test scores and teacher evaluations are "simply ridiculous." He says good teaching ought to be rewarded and that test results are a measure of progress in the classroom.

Making an issue of using test scores to evaluate teachers means taking on powerful teacher unions, pitting a core Democratic interest group against a major goal of the Obama administration.

"This is definitely a case of poking the teachers union in the eye," said Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank.

Neither the 3.2 million-member National Education Association nor the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers believes results of a single test should be used to evaluate teachers. Both teachers unions have said if tests must be used, they should be only one of several measures for evaluating teachers.

"Of all the things in the Race to the Top guidelines, this is the one that's given us the most pause, the most concern," said AFT president Randi Weingarten. "It just focuses huge attention on standardized testing."

NEA is fighting requirement
The NEA is fighting the requirement. In a letter to the administration, the NEA said it is unhealthy to focus so heavily on test scores and warned that the rules for the competition would interfere with local union contracts.

States like Wisconsin and California that face ongoing budget problems don't want one issue to outright disqualify them from a piece of the $4.35 billion federal pie. Competition is expected to be fierce, with Duncan anticipating only 10 to 20 states will share the money.

The first grants should be awarded in March. Another round of money will be awarded in spring 2010.

Links between pay, tests rarely happen
While most states allow test results to be linked to teacher performance, that rarely happens, said Petrilli, the Fordham Institute analyst.

Already, the promise of money from the Race to the Top competition forced several states to make changes when Duncan warned they were hurting their chances. Seven states — Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado and Illinois — have lifted restrictions on charter schools so they can compete for the money. Duncan has made it clear that those willing to embrace charter schools and other favored innovations will get preference.

California is hustling to reconsider its law that bans tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

Last month Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger convened the Legislature to pass a package of reforms, including requiring school districts to consider student test data when evaluating teachers.

Proposed reforms ‘encouraging’
That move drew praise from Duncan, who said California's proposed reforms were encouraging.

Wisconsin also is trying to lift its restriction on test scores and teacher evaluations. The law says exams cannot be used to evaluate, fire, suspend or discipline a teacher. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, an early and frequent campaigner for Obama, said he will propose changes this month that will clear the way for Wisconsin to qualify.

That state's largest teachers union supports changing the law so Wisconsin isn't eliminated from vying for the stimulus funds.

Though unlike California and Wisconsin, Nevada may not be able to lift its restriction in time to qualify for the federal money. Its law prohibits statewide tests used for compliance with federal law to be used for evaluating teachers. The Legislature only meets every two years and isn't scheduled to be back in session until February 2011.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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