President Barack Obama is trying to overhaul public education by offering states billions of dollars in stimulus money if they improve student assessments, teacher effectiveness, collection and use of data, and support for struggling schools.
Called Race to the Top, the program provides $4.35 billion in federal stimulus money to public schools if they meet certain requirements, such as linking teacher pay to students' test scores.
The changes are drawing support from politicians — including Gov. Schwarzenegger and State Superintendent Jack O'Connell — and ire from educators, especially teacher unions.
If chosen, California officials estimate the state could get about $700 million in one-time money, but it's unclear which school districts would receive the funding.
Attaching grant money to Race to the Top goals increases the chances that the state and schools take notice, especially in the San Joaquin Valley where the recession is causing drastic cuts in education spending and many districts have declining enrollment.
But educators are concerned about the fairness of using students' performance on state test scores to evaluate teachers' performance, while others say most industries judge employees on their achievements.
"I can't think of any other profession that does not assess a person on their goals," said Scott Siegel, deputy superintendent of Ceres schools.
Educators counter that the idea is a bit more complex for public schools.
"You don't get to pick and choose which children you get in your class," said Julie Nelson, a third-grade teacher at Woodrow Elementary School in Modesto. It's hard to control for variables each child faces, such as poverty and learning English, which can make it harder to learn, she said.
"I understand why people want to have it, but the work of good teachers is not reflected in test scores."
And what about music, art and physical education teachers, whose subjects are not tested on the California Standards Tests, teachers ask.
Most districts evaluate teachers on a variety of items, from student scores on district tests to administrator observations, which look for strategies teachers use, how effective they are at teaching the state's academic content standards, and how well students are working in the classroom.
"(Race to the Top) is definitely an issue people really talk about," said Catherine Quittmeyer, an English teacher at Orestimba High School in Newman. "I'm not afraid of it, I just don't think it's a really good judge of what I do day to day in the classroom."
Educators note that school districts already can tie teacher raises to local test scores. However, state law prohibits officials in Sacramento from mandating that practice.
For example, north Modesto's Sylvan Union School District teachers can be evaluated based on student improvement on tests, said Chris Aguilar, the teachers union president. State tests can't be used, but administrators review district tests taken throughout the school year, he said.
Woodrow's Nelson gives district reading exams at least three times a year and math tests six times a year.
When it comes to the bill's other changes, educators and politicians are almost as divided, though not as heatedly.
Allowing students who attend low-performing schools to transfer to any other school in the state:
Megan Gowans of the Modesto Teachers Association calls the issue a "hollow opportunity."
"Those families don't have the resources to get to other schools. And many aren't going to move out of a neighborhood even if there are other opportunities," she said.
The No Child Left Behind Act has a similar school choice requirement but limits the transfer to another school in the student's district. So few families have taken advantage that educators don't see students transferring under the proposed open enrollment.
Starting new data systems:
The cost of overhauling and improving the state's teacher and student tracking programs could consume the funding that California would receive from Race to the Top, teachers said.