Clock Ticking on Assured Access to Qualified Teachers

By Alyson Klein — August 05, 2014 4 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is dusting off an old strategy to put teeth into a requirement of the 12-year-old No Child Left Behind Act that has gone largely unenforced until now: ensuring that poor and minority students get access to as many qualified teachers as their more advantaged peers.

The Obama administration will require states to submit new plans to address the distribution of qualified teachers by April of next year, or just a few months before the department likely will begin to consider states’ requests for renewal of their waivers of key NCLB provisions.

This isn’t the first time that the Education Department has asked states to outline their plans on teacher distribution—and the results so far haven’t exactly been a stunning success.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law in 2002, states were required to ensure that poor and minority students were not being taught by unqualified teachers at a higher rate than other students.

But fewer than half the states have separate teacher-equity plans on file with the department. Most of those plans are at least several years old, and the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that advocates for poor and minority children, found them to be seriously lacking in a 2006 report.

But addressing that problem won’t be easy. States’ authority and capacity to ensure that districts distribute teachers fairly are limited, since decisions on such critical matters as hiring and transfers typically are made at the local level. Plus, states are currently knee-deep in developing new teacher-evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account, which has strained capacity and shifted the focus away from teacher qualifications and toward teacher effectiveness.

Those factors mean the administration’s proposal is unlikely to seriously change the teacher-equity picture in most states, said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington.

“Let’s not pretend that states have the authority to make this happen,” said Mr. Petrilli, who served in the Education Department under President George W. Bush. “This whole effort is wrongheaded.”

But Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said states can provide clear data on the scope of the teacher-distribution problem; spark discussion by district leaders, unions, and educators; and bolster teacher preparation.

“Any federal efforts in this area must allow the states to lead the way,” he added.

Equity Profiles

To help states move forward, the Obama administration plans to develop a new, $4.2 million “technical assistance” network—called the Educator Equity Support Network—to help states develop their plans and put them in place. The network will come up with model plans to guide states’ work, and give educators a space to swap information about how they have approached the teacher-equity problem.

By way of perspective, that $4.2 million would be spread throughout the entire country and is less money than the administration typically would allocate to just three individual foundering schools under the School Improvement Grant program.

The administration also is planning to publish “educator equity” profiles in the fall, to help states get a sense of where their gaps are when it comes to equitable distribution of teachers. The profiles could include information comparing teacher-experience levels, attendance rates, and qualifications at high- and low-poverty schools.

The department also will share states’ data files from the Civil Rights Data Collection, to help inform their analyses of their current performance on teacher distribution. How

ever, much of the data in the CRDC analysis already come from districts within the states themselves.

Big questions loom, including just how—and whether—the state-equity plans will figure into renewal of the federal waivers that ease states’ compliance with the NCLB law. Those renewals are slated to begin next year.

Waiver Connection

In unveiling the teacher-equity strategy last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan didn’t get into specifics on that question, saying only that the plans will be “a piece of many things we’re considering” in determining waiver-renewal criteria.

But tying state action on teacher equity to waiver renewal was on the table last year. In August of 2013, the Education Department said it planned to require states to look at where they were falling short on teacher equity in order to renew their NCLB waivers.

Then, a few months later, the Obama administration backed off that proposal in favor of a much more streamlined waiver “extension” process. It promised to take a more rigorous look at the teacher-equity issue through a 50-state strategy that would apply to all states, not just the 40-plus with waivers. The administration had hoped at first to unveil that plan in January, but it didn’t release anything until last month.

The equity proposal comes several months after civil rights organizations—and their congressional allies—turned up the pressure on the administration to make teacher distribution a condition of waiver renewal.

Members of the three caucuses in Congress representing minority-group lawmakers—the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Caucus—sent a letter to Mr. Duncan in February blasting the impact of the waivers on the poor and minority students the NCLB law was designed to help, and imploring the Obama administration to look closely at whether states are taking teacher-equity issues seriously before deciding whether to extend their waivers.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Clock Ticking for States on Assuring Access to Qualified Teachers


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