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Ed. Dept. Approves 16 State Teacher-Equity Plans, But Questions Remain

By Alyson Klein — September 10, 2015 4 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday gave 16 states the stamp of approval on their plans for making sure that students in high-poverty schools get access to their fair share of qualified teachers. Those states are: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.

These states have agreed to take steps like providing training for turnaround principals (Connecticut), enticing paraprofessionals to go into teaching by offering incentives like loan forgiveness (Minnesota), or predicting teacher shortage areas (Missouri and Arkansas).

Now, big questions loom about just how great of a difference the plans will really make, including:

How does the department make sure that states actually follow through on these plans? Advocates for improving teacher equity who reviewed selected plans say that overall, there were some good ideas proposed, but that the real test would come during implementation.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, hammered home the point about follow-through.

“Few issues in education are more important than ensuring equitable access to high-quality teachers, and the Department of Education is right to focus attention on this topic,” she said in a statement released by the Education Department. “Clear action plans are a first step, but we’ve got to make sure that these plans are actually enacted.”

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, agreed with that assessment in a press call Thursday, even as he praised states for coming up with thoughtful solutions tailored to their individual circumstances.

“These are just plans and unless the states continue to implement these they will just end up being plans,” he said.

Right now, there seems to be no clear enforcement mechanism for making sure that the proposals are actually put into practice. The department had initially planned to link states’ efforts on teacher equity to renewal of their waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, but then abandoned that strategy.

The department, which put out teacher equity data in December to inform these plans, said it will update that information every two years, to help states track their progress. But that could put the next data release in December of 2016, weeks before the Obama administration leaves town for good.

And, on a call with reporters, Duncan said the department is continuing to offer support to states, not just in crafting their plans, but in helping them to come to fruition. For instance, the administration will offer quarterly “equity labs” in specific states, bringing together teachers, administrators, and others to help think through implementation.

When asked whether the agency would consider withholding funds from a state or placing its waiver on high risk status if it didn’t comply with its plan, Duncan said that kind of action wasn’t off the table, but it’s far from his first choice.

“We want to give people every chance to be successful,” he said. “We want to ensure that we’re not just the enforcement arm ... States are putting themselves way out there on this.”

What exactly happens to states whose plans aren’t approved? Nearly three dozen states are still awaiting a thumbs-up, and the administration says they’ll be approved on a rollling basis. And earlier this year, the department said it will work with states whose plans don’t initially meet its requirements, which include things like scrutinizing data to figure out what’s causing teacher inequities and reaching out to districts, educators, and their unions to find fixes. States who fall short will be expected to revise their plans.

In fact, it wasn’t clear for much of the summer what, exactly, was going to happen with these plans. The agency posted states’ inital drafts on its website, without a lot of specifics about an approval process, such as whether the agency would make it clear which plans had been revised and how.

How do these plans dovetail with the department’s other major push, for improving teacher effectiveness and evaluations? The teacher equity plans ask states to take a look at whether highly-qualified teachers are fairly distributed between high-poverty schools and wealthier schools. However, through NCLB waivers, most states have been working on improving teacher effectiveness and evaluations, which look not just at teacher qualifications, but at whether educators can move the needle on test scores. New Jersey, whose plan has not yet been approved, pointed out the contrast right in its equity plan.

What’s more, an Education Week review of selected state equity plans, which were filed back in June, revealed that while some states took the opportunity to rethink their strategies for teacher distribution, others just repackaged plans already underway. Plus, at least one state that’s still awaiting approval—Montana—noted that generally speaking, it can only do so much when it comes to teacher distribution, since hiring and placing teachers is really districts’ purview.

How will things be different this time? This isn’t the first time the feds have tried to tackle the tricky issue of teacher distribution. The NCLB law called for states to ensure all teachers were highly qualified by the 2005-06 school year. (States got a one-year extension.) But, as of early last year, fewer than half of states had filed separate equity plans with the department detailing how they aimed to ensure their most qualified teachers were distributed evenly among low- and high-poverty schools. (Some states choose to address equity in their plans for spending Title I money.) Of the state plans that were filed, a good chunk sat around for years, without an update.

Will many of these plans end up in a similar state? We’ll see.