Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks on the Teacher Incentive Fund

Posted on February 13, 2007

A few days ago, I came to the floor deeply concerned because someone, someone over in the House of Representatives, before they sent that continuing resolution or joint funding resolution over here, had taken the Teacher Incentive Fund, which was to be funded at $100 million a year, and reduced it to $200,000. In other words, they killed the funding. I couldn't imagine someone would do that on purpose, and so I came here to say so. I know it was a confusing time and there were lots of different priorities to be met. Perhaps, in the difficulty of putting together the joint funding resolution, it was just a slip-up. I said I hoped it wasn't the signal of what the new Democratic majority's education policy would be because I couldn't imagine the new Democratic majority -- or the old Democratic minority, for that matter -- or any of us on either side being against the Teacher Incentive Fund. What the Teacher Incentive Fund does is almost the most crucial thing we need to do in helping our schools succeed. It makes grants to States and cities that are doing the best work in trying to find fair ways to reward outstanding teaching and to reward good principals. Every education meeting I go to, and I have been going to them for years, that ends up being the No. 1 thing we need to do. First are parents, second are teachers and principals, and everything else is about 5 percent. In other words, a child who has a head start at home is a child who is going to get an education almost no matter what else happens. But if you add an outstanding teacher and an outstanding principal to whatever happens at home, the school is better and the classroom is better and the child succeeds. This is especially true for low-income children in America, which is exactly what the Teacher Incentive Fund is designed to meet. Well, I wasn't disappointed because within 5 minutes after I began, the distinguished Senator from Illinois, Mr. Durbin, the assistant Democratic leader, came on the floor, and I think I am being fair in characterizing his remarks when he said: Whoa, wait a minute. This is a good program. In fact, I just received a call this afternoon, said Senator Durbin, from the superintendent of the Chicago schools, and he said we need this program. He said we have a lot of low-income, poor kids who aren't making it, whom we are leaving behind, we want to help them, and this helps us do that. He said we have a grant under the Teacher Incentive Fund to do it. We heard further testimony at a roundtable in our Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that in the Chicago schools they closed some schools where children were not learning year after year after year. What did they do? They put in a new team -- a new principal, a new set of teachers. And what did they do with the teachers? They paid them $10,000 a year more than they were otherwise making to make sure they would go there because they were the teachers known in Chicago to be able to help low- achieving students achieve. We all know from our experience and research that virtually every child can learn. Some children just need a little extra help getting to the starting line. If you don't get it at home, you especially need it at school. And where you get it at school is from outstanding teachers and principals. So it wasn't Senator Durbin, who is the assistant Democratic leader in the Senate, who was trying to kill the Teacher Incentive Fund. So I have been wondering for the last few days, well, then, who was it? Who was it? Well, now I know, Mr. President, because they have announced it. Today comes a letter to me -- "Dear Senator Alexander" -- on behalf of the National Education Association, the NEA, with 3.2 million members, saying: We urge your opposition to several ill-conceived amendments to the continuing resolution. Specifically, we urge you to vote "no" on an amendment to be offered by Senator Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, that would provide $99 million for the teacher incentive fund. So the NEA, in its brilliance, has written me a letter to ask me to vote against my own amendment. I am astonished. That doesn't surprise me so much. Any of our offices can make a mistake. But what I want the President to know, and I want our colleagues to know -- I want them to know who is against this, and I want the world to know what they are against. What they are against is helping find a fair way to pay good teachers more for teaching well and to train and help good principals lead schools, especially in big cities where we have a lot of low-income children who are falling behind. This is not some abstract notion. The President had recommended $100 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation. In a bipartisan way it passed several years ago, and we are in the midst of a remarkably bipartisan approach to see what we need to do about NCLB as we reauthorize it for 5 years, and part of it is the Teacher Incentive Fund. In a very tight budget, President Bush has recommended not just $100 million for the next year, he has recommended $200 million. I placed into the Record a few days ago Secretary of Education Spellings' letter saying this is very important. We have just started this program. We made a number of grants to cities all across America, 16 grants across the country, at least one State -- in South Carolina. You have cut us off. You stopped us from making an evaluation and reporting back to the Senate, to the Congress, how this is working. You are disappointing these school districts who have stepped up to do this. That is what has happened. Just to be very specific, here is the kind of thing that the Teacher Incentive Fund grant does. Memphis, our biggest city, has an unusually large number of our lowest performing schools. It is our poorest big city, one of the poorest big cities in America. It has a real solid school superintendent, she’s excellent, and they are working hard to improve. A lot of the Memphis citizens are putting together a special effort to say: One of the single best things we can do in Memphis is to take every single one of our school principals, put them through a training program for a year, hook up with New Leaders for New Schools to do that, continuing after the year, and then we will put them back in charge of their school. We will give them autonomy to make the changes they need to make, and we will see if these children can succeed because we know if they can succeed, if we help them the correct way -- we give them extra hours, as we have in our charter schools, give them extra training, we know they will succeed. Memphis City Schools and New Leaders for New Schools were awarded a grant for $3.1 million in the year 2006, the first year after the 5-year grant totaling $18 million. Over the 5-year grant, Memphis plans to provide training and incentive grants to 83 principals serving almost one-third of the schools in the Memphis school system. Principals will receive incentive grants of at least $15,000 a year. What is wrong with that? Why would the largest educational association in America oppose taking a city with low-performing students and saying we are going to kill the program that trains your principals and pay them $15,000 more a year to do a better job? Why would they do that? The assistant Democratic leader doesn't agree with that. At least he said so on the floor of the Senate. I don't agree with it. I don't think the parents of the children agree with it. The school superintendent doesn't agree with it, nor does the mayor. Who is against this? We are trying to pay more money to the members of the association that is trying to kill the program. That is what we are trying to do. It is not just Memphis. I think it is important that my colleagues in the Senate -- if the snow and the ice has not caused them to flee to the suburbs. I think most of them are in their offices, maybe a few are even listening. I want them to know that the National Education Association wants to kill the program for the Northern New Mexico Network, the Northern New Mexico Network for Rural Education, a nonprofit organization, one of the 19 grantees of the Teacher Incentive Fund. It is partnering with four school districts. They serve a region with high levels of poverty, high concentrations of Native Americans and Hispanic students, extreme rural conditions, small schools. So the NEA wants to kill the program to help make those teachers and those principals better. Here’s another project, New Leaders for New Schools in the DC public schools. This is a coalition with DC public schools and several others, to provide direct compensation to teachers and principals who have demonstrated their ability to move student achievement. What a terrible thing to reward -- teachers who have demonstrated an ability to move student achievement. Let's kill that program right away. We don't want that happening in the District of Columbia, do we? Let's go to the Chicago public schools. Chicago has taken a lot of steps in their public schools. The mayor deserves a lot of credit for that. The school system deserves a lot of credit. They know these children can't wait 5 or 10 years to have a good education experience, so, as I mentioned earlier, in some cases they are not moving the school, they are just transforming it. How do you transform a school? There is only one way. You move in a new principal and you move in some really good teachers. There is only one way to transform a school, and that is it. So the Chicago public schools in collaboration with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching proposes the Recognizing Excellence in Academic Leadership. At the heart of that is multiple evaluations, opportunities for new roles and responsibilities, recruitment, development, retention of quality staff in 40 Chicago high schools that serve 24,000 students. The NEA wants to kill that program. That is the third grantee. Let's go to Denver. The Denver public schools proposed a twofold district-wide expansion of its professional compensation system for teachers -- that means we pay them more -- to develop and implement and evaluate a performance-based compensation system for principals. My goodness, Denver wants to pay its best principals more money so they might stay in the school? And how are they going to do that? They are going to think about it. They are going to work within the system. They are going to ask for outside help. They are not just imposing a one-time bonus, merit pay system. They are trying to lead the country in doing this. The National Education Association says: No, let's kill it. The National Education Association not only said, no, let's kill it, they issued a threat to Members of the Senate. "Votes associated with these issues may be included in the NEA legislative report card for the 110th Congress." That means if you vote against the Alexander amendment or anybody else's amendment supporting the Teacher Incentive Fund, what we, the National Education Association, will do is write all the teachers in Tennessee or Rhode Island or wherever we may be and say: Your Senator is anti-education. Why is the Senator anti-education? Because he wants to support a program to find a fair way to reward outstanding principals and teachers who are teaching low-income children and helping them succeed. California -- my goodness. The Mare Island Technology Academy -- here is another thing that NEA would like to stomp out. It proposes to extend a current project to award incentives to teachers and principals instrumental in increasing student achievement. We can't have that in California, at least under the NEA. The Houston independent school district -- maybe Senators Cornyn and Hutchison would like to know about this. It is the largest public school district in Texas, the seventh largest in the United States. It proposes an incentive plan for teachers that focuses on teacher effectiveness and growth in learning. We don't want that in any school, do we? Guilford County, NC -- maybe Senator Burr and Senator Dole would like to be aware of this because their schools proposed a financial recruitment project called Mission Possible and plans to extend the program to an additional seven schools, charter schools in various States. Another project. Alaska -- one school district there serves as the fiscal agent. They are working on the same sort of progress and expanding on a current program with the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition. South Carolina Department of Education. A modified version of the existing teacher advancement program to implement a performance-based compensation system to address problems with recruitment and retention in 23 high-need schools in six districts. We wouldn't want 23 high-need schools in six South Carolina districts to have a program to pay good teachers more for teaching well, would we? We would like to kill that in the Congress because the National Education Association might put us on their list of not voting for the NEA legislative report card. Dallas independent school district -- they have a similar program. They want to identify and reward principals and teachers based on a combination of direct and value-added measures of student achievement. Can’t have that. The school district of Philadelphia, PA. Let's pay particular attention to this one. The overall purpose of Philadelphia's initiative is to pilot a performance-based staff development and compensation system that is teacher pay and principals, that provides teachers and principals with clear incentives that are directly tied to student achievement, growth and classroom observations conducted according to an objective standards-based rubric at multiple points during the school year. Twenty high-need urban elementary schools that have demonstrated high degrees of faculty buy-in -- that means the teachers want it -- will participate in the pilot. Nobody is making them do it. They are volunteering to do it. The teachers want it. Leaders from the school district of Philadelphia's administration and from two unions, representing all Philadelphia teachers and principals, have designed the pilot and will oversee its implementation. So the National Education Association says kill the program in Philadelphia for a lot of high-need kids, even though the program involves the unions who work in those schools. That is a very arrogant attitude, it seems to me. Ohio, State Department of Education, Eagle County, CO, and Weld County, CO -- those are just the schools and school districts and the States where the Department has made 16 grants in the first year of its operation. As you can see, the common thread running through here is, can we find a fair way to reward outstanding teachers and help in training and reward outstanding principals so they will stay in the classroom, so they will have an even better idea of what they are doing, so we can honor them, treat them in a more professional way? If we were to do that, wouldn't that be better? Why wouldn't the largest educational association in America welcome this? I know in Chattanooga, TN, when the new Senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker, was mayor, he was more effective than I was in working with the local teachers association or union, and he did just this -- generally with their participation and agreement. And he helped, in a model school system in Chattanooga, TN, find a way to attract teachers to the schools where children were having trouble learning and needed extra help. These were teachers who had shown an ability to help these students achieve more. So they were paid more for that. They were paid more for that. I will conclude my remarks with a little bit of history. If you sense, in my voice, a heavy amount of disappointment, it is because this goes back a long ways. In 1983, when I was Governor of Tennessee, I proposed what then was the first statewide program to pay teachers more for teaching well. We called it the Master Teacher Program. I was astonished, after a term as Governor, to discover that not one State was paying one teacher one penny more for teaching well. I could not understand how we were going to keep outstanding men and women in the classrooms, particularly -- this was 25 years ago, almost -- now that women had many more employment opportunities. The math teacher was headed for IBM, the science teacher was going over here. One reason was because of the teacher pay scale. You could make more for staying around a long time, you could make more for getting another degree, but you couldn't make a penny more for being good. I went around to try to find out how do we reward outstanding teaching, and everybody said you can't do that. Not quite everybody. One person who did not say that was Albert Shanker, who was the head of the American Federation of Teachers, which is the second largest teachers union. Mr. Shanker said if we have master plumbers we can have master teachers, and maybe we need to get busy trying to think of a fair way to do that. He invited me to go to Los Angeles and speak to the convention of the American Federation of Teachers. They were very skeptical -- which I understand, because professionals who are already working in their profession have a right to be skeptical of outsiders who would come in and say we are going to grade you. Even though these teachers are in the business of grading themselves. I spoke to the American Federation of Teachers. I worked with Mr. Shanker. I even raised taxes in Tennessee. Guess who was against doing what we eventually did? The National Education Association. Their President said we are going to send whatever we need into Tennessee to defeat Alexander's silly ideas, and we fought for a year and a half and finally I won, temporarily, and Tennessee established a career ladder program which eventually attracted 10,000 teachers with 10- or 11-month contracts who volunteered to go up the career ladder to a second or third level. They were called master teachers. We raised the pay for every teacher by $1,000, just if they took the basic teacher competency test. That was voluntary, too, but more than 90 percent did it. And 10,000 teachers did. That was quite a number. This was sort of the model T of the teacher compensation plans. Since then, a lot has happened across the country. Governor Jim Hunt and others, with the support of the teachers unions, have developed the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards Certified Teacher Program, which is one way of certifying a biology teacher in the same way you would certify an orthopedic doctor. This is helpful if you are on the school board in Providence, you can say: I don't have the means to evaluate if this teacher is better than that teacher, but if you are a board certified teacher we will pay you $10,000 more a year. That has worked pretty well. Some places around the country have found ways to do that, but it is not possible for a school board in the town to take on the whole mixture of difficulties that go with a fair way to reward teachers. We did it in 1983 and 1984, and we had to create a panel of teachers who were outside the district of the teacher who wanted to be a master teacher to avoid politics. We made sure one of those teachers was of that same subject. If it was an eighth grade U.S. history teacher, then somebody on the panel was an eighth grade U.S. history teacher. Principal evaluations were part of it and a teacher portfolio was part of it. One thing we did not know how to do then and we are just beginning to understand in our country is how to measure student achievement. Our common sense says a teacher makes a big difference, but how do we measure it? The challenge, as we work on schools that need help, is how do we make sure they have the best teachers and the best school leaders? It is a big challenge, but it is not impossible. We are learning, after 4 years of No Child Left Behind, that 80 percent of our schools I would call high-achieving schools are meeting all the adequate yearly progress requirements for No Child Left Behind. That means we have about 20 percent of our schools that aren't. In 5 percent of the schools, they are only behind in one category. So it is only 15 percent of the schools where children are chronically not learning and being left behind. The ugly fact was, before No Child Left Behind, we let that happen. Now we put the spotlight on it, and we have to do something about it. The best way to do something about it is what? Get a terrific school leader and help him or her be a good principal, move in some tremendous teachers or reward those who are there and keep them teaching. And the National Education Association says kill the program that is the most important Federal program to do that? I don't understand that; I don't understand. I say to my colleagues in the Senate of both parties, I hope this approach will have unanimous opposition in the Senate. I hope we say we want to reward efforts in Memphis, in New Mexico, DC, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Chattanooga, where they tackle the problem. No, we are not talking about a one-time bonus pay for people, or teacher of the year, who the principal might like. We are talking about a more professional system where we can say talented men and women who are teachers, we like to honor you. We want to work with you in your district to form a way to honor you and raise your pay. There is one reason I regret having to make this speech, I had a wonderful visit the other day. It came from six or seven members of the Tennessee Education Association. Earl Wiman, Guy Stanley, Paula Brown, Nita Jones, and Kristen Allen came to my office. We visited for a while. I am about to write a handwritten note to Earl Wiman to say how much I appreciated the visit. He was a career ladder teacher, making $75,000 extra dollars over his tenure. He said "I want to thank you for that." We acknowledged there were problems with the master teacher program we had in Tennessee as there always are when you start up something new. It was a terrific visit from people I greatly respect. It reminded me, wherever I go in Tennessee, retired teachers or current teachers come up to me and say, thank you for the master teacher program. It paid for my child's education. It honored my work. It raised my retirement pay. It kept me teaching. You would be surprised how many times this happened, so I know this can be done. But it cannot be done if the largest educational association in America sends out letters such as this threatening Senators with, in effect, writing every teacher in their district, and saying you are a bad Senator because you voted against the NEA legislative report card. I would give them an F on a letter for another reason. They said that the Teacher Incentive Fund restricts the use of funds to only two possible uses: merit pay and tenure reform. That is not true, at least not according to the Department of Education. We called over there today. This is what they told me: The Department of Education says the words "tenure" or "merit pay" do not even appear in the application forms. The specific goals of the teacher incentive fund include: one, improving student achievement by increasing teacher and principal effectiveness; two, reforming teacher and principal compensation systems so that teachers and principals are rewarded for increases in student achievement; three, increasing the number of effective teachers teaching minority, poor, and disadvantaged students in hard-to-staff subjects; and finally, creating sustainable, performance-based compensation systems. Applicants must outline how they will utilize classroom evaluations that are conducted multiple times throughout the school year and provide incentives for educators to take on additional responsibilities and easy leadership roles. The Department also gives extra points to applications that demonstrate they have support from a significant proportion of teachers, the principal, and community. As I mentioned, in Philadelphia or Denver, that means the teachers' union. I know in this joint funding resolution it looks as though we are not going to have a chance to amend that. That is why I voted against cloture. I understand that. Both sides of our aisle did not get our work done so we have had to clean it up too quickly this year. The Teacher Incentive Fund tokk a big hit. I say earnestly to my colleagues in the Senate, I hope Senators will look at the Teacher Incentive Fund carefully. I hope you will think about what your ideas are for improving schools with low-performing students. I hope you will ask yourself whether what they are doing in Chicago, for example, to move in a new principal and to move in a team of teachers and to train them more and to pay them more might not be one way to do it. If Denver wants to do it this way, and Dallas wants to do it that way, and Philadelphia wants to do it that way, and Mayor Corker helped Chattanooga do it, why shouldn't we help them? We don't want the Federal Government to take over the local schools, but clearly one of the appropriate things for the Federal Government to do in support of elementary and secondary education and high school education is to help solve this tough problem of how do we fairly and effectively reward outstanding teaching and outstanding school leadership. If we don't do this in our current system, we are not going to be able to keep the best men and women in our classrooms, especially in the most difficult classrooms, which is where our spotlight is going. We know that 80 percent of our schools in America are high-achieving schools, they are making the advanced yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Five percent more are just missing it, and in the 15 percent, don't we want to ignore this letter from the National Education Association? I will answer their letter from here. I am not going to vote against the Alexander amendment. I hope they will write me often. I hope it is not this kind of letter again. I say to my friends from Tennessee who were good enough to travel all the way up here and visit with me, I am going to work a little harder in communicating with them. I know there will be issues upon which we disagree -- the Tennessee Education Association and I have proved in the past we can disagree. What I want to prove to them in the future is there are lots of ways we can agree. I know they are dedicated professionals, they are working hard every day under difficult circumstances -- many with children whose parents don't feed them well, don't teach them before they come to school, and don't take care of them in the afternoon. I want to be sensitive to that. In my remarks today I want to send a clear message to the National Education Association: I am disappointed in their letter, I am disappointed in their attitude. I hope the Senate rejects their attitude. But I want to be as clear to my friends in the Tennessee Education Association that I greatly appreciate their visit. I look forward to redoubling my efforts to work with them. I look forward to talking with them over time about support. I encourage their ways to honor their professionals, including development of a compensation program that rewards outstanding teaching and schools. I ask unanimous consent the letter from the National Education Association be printed in the Record.