WASHINGTON — In its search for better schools, the Department of Education is turning to  teachers for solutions with a  new project called RESPECT.

The initiative, which will be funded by a $5 million federal grant program, is meant to encourage more communication between the federal agency and teachers, principals, unions and other organizations. The idea is to improve teacher quality in the classroom and heighten respect for the teaching profession.

“Our larger goal… is to make teaching not only America’s most important profession, but America’s most respected profession,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at a news conference Wednesday.

Duncan wants to attack problems such as  the lack of real-world experiential training for teachers, relaxed standards for entry into schools of education and the emphasis on testing to determine student progress and teacher value.

“Instead of a safety net beneath our children and teachers, test-based accountability has become a sword hanging over their head,” he said.

The RESPECT program wants to attract highly qualified candidates to the profession and share more information among teachers on the most effective practices in the classroom.

“Teachers want to make a difference, and they want to transform the lives of their students,” he said. “But teaching isn’t the Peace Corps. This is a profession and teachers should be able to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle, not have to take on a vow of poverty.”

For SEED Public Charter School teacher Dan Brown, the lack of respect for teachers in the media hurts the profession’s reputation with the public. If teachers are given more respect, Brown said, it follows that teachers and students will be more successful.

Many teachers at the conference asked how the program would specifically upgrade the quality of their profession, improve racial diversity among teachers and better prepare them for the classroom after they leave college.

Duncan said he did not have all the answers at this point. But he said, “We have to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of good. We have to get in the game.”