Key Policy Letters Signed by the Education Secretary or Deputy Secretary
April 3, 2008
Archived Information

April 3, 2008

Dear Chief State School Officer:

Since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in January 2002, we have seen signs of real progress -- academic achievement is on the rise, especially for low-income and minority children, free tutoring is available and utilized by more children than ever before, and parents have greater access to information about their child's education progress and the performance of their schools. But we still have much work to do to improve instruction in all of our struggling schools and to have all students at grade level in reading and mathematics by 2014.

I hear many reasons for why this goal is unrealistic and why we must turn away from NCLB, but it is time to recognize that many schools and educators are helping to ensure that all students become proficient. I have traveled throughout the country and am proud of what I have seen. Innovation and change are alive and well in many of our schools, and these schools are getting results -- from Tinker Elementary School in Oklahoma City and Otay Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, to Saint Albans High School in Saint Albans, West Virginia. But more must be done.

As we work to ensure that every student achieves at grade level or above in reading and mathematics, States must ensure that schools' curricula are aligned with the State standards; analyze achievement data to identify strengths, weaknesses, and trends; and ensure that their local educational agencies place their most effective teachers with our neediest students. This last issue is the focus of this letter.

The disparity in student achievement is still great between schools that serve students from low-income families and schools that serve students from high-income families, and often our best teachers are assigned to the highest performing schools. In many districts, schools and teachers' unions are working together to give administrators greater flexibility to implement needed reforms. In Denver, Bruce Randolph School and Manual High School have reached a historic agreement with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. The new agreement gives principals in these schools greater autonomy, including the freedom to hire teachers without being subject to the procedures set forth in their existing collective bargaining agreement. The process in reaching this agreement was apparently difficult, but all of the parties saw the need for flexibility and worked hard to get it done. This example of cooperation can serve as a model for other districts and teachers' unions to work together for the best interests of students.

Other States and districts are collecting data to identify their effective teachers. Teacher accountability systems that build on "value-added" or other teacher accountability methodologies are helping to identify those teachers who are most effective in raising student achievement. We understand that States such as Tennessee, Washington, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and school districts like Chattanooga and rural Marlboro County, South Carolina, have been at the forefront of this type of initiative. These teacher accountability systems, though sometimes challenging to put in place, are getting promising results for helping to ensure the most effective use of high-quality teachers in schools with lower performing students.

At the Department, we encourage innovation through such means as compensation and rewards tied to results through the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF). For example, in Guilford County, North Carolina, teachers earn up to $14,000 more a year if their students improve in reading and mathematics and up to $6,500 a year if they teach in "hard-to-staff" areas.

The Department provides TIF grants to districts, States, and nonprofit organizations under a competitive process to attract the most effective teachers and principals to the neediest schools and to reward them for results. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, Congress appropriated just over $97 million for TIF grants. In the FY 2009 budget, we are requesting an even larger figure of $200 million. The $102.7 million increase would support a significant expansion of State and school district efforts to develop and implement innovative compensation systems to attract our best and brightest teachers and principals to our highest-need schools, to provide financial incentives for teachers and principals who raise student achievement, and to close the achievement gap in our highest-need schools.

I strongly encourage you to explore these initiatives and other means for placing our most effective teachers in high-need schools, and to work with your school districts to identify available local, State, and Federal funding sources that can support these efforts. But the good ideas should not end there. I want to hear from you so that the Department can share the innovations that you are developing and implementing. I have asked the Department's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) to work with the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality to receive, compile, and disseminate innovative ideas for improving the use of effective teachers and to help coordinate technical assistance from the Department and from others around the nation. For further information, please feel free to contact the following individuals in OESE: Joseph Conaty at (202) 260-8230 or Fran Walter at (202) 205-9198.

Thank you for joining with me to ensure that all of our students receive quality instruction. I look forward to hearing from you.

  Margaret Spellings

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Last Modified: 04/15/2008