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Ed. Dept. Directs States to Improve Teacher Distribution

By Alyson Klein — November 10, 2014 5 min read
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The Obama administration promised over the summer that it would direct states to develop plans for ensuring low-income kids get access to as many highly qualified teachers as their more advantaged peers—a key goal of the dozen-year-old No Child Left Behind Act that has largely gone unenforced.

Twenty-seven pages of new guidance released on the issue Monday appear to give states a lot of running room to figure out just what these equity plans should look like—without clear, strong federal levers in place for ensuring that states follow through.

What’s more, the Obama administration directs states to focus their plans mainly on “inputs"—such as how many years of experience a teacher has—rather than “outputs,” or how effective teachers actually are at moving the needle on student achievement. (To be sure, the department contends that it isn’t allowed to consider “effectiveness” in teacher distribution under NCLB. But that didn’t stop the administration from requiring states to include teacher effectiveness in their NCLB waiver plans. More here.)

[UPDATE: (1:54 p.m.) This update is just for you true-blue wonks out there. On a call for reporters explaining the guidance, Education Department officials parsed the legal distinctions a bit more for me. The big difference between these equity plans and the waivers is that the waivers are voluntary, while these distribution plans are a requirement. And states can certainly take effectiveness into account when they write their teacher-equity plans, if they want to. Still, it appears to be something of a policy mismatch with all the Obama administration’s other initiatives. Would this guidance might have had more teeth if it had been directly linked to the waiver process, which was the department’s original aim? More on that question below.]

The equity plans are due by June 1. That gives states a longer time frame than they were initially expecting. The equity plans were originally supposed to be due in April 2015, to align with waiver-renewal applications. But the department is pushing this time frame back a month and half. The extra time is supposed to help states consult with “stakeholders” including teachers’ unions, according to a letter to state chiefs sent Monday by Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

But the delay means that states can get their waivers renewed even if they wind up submitting a relatively skimpy or insufficient teacher distribution plan.

To help states do this work, the department is also releasing data (aka “equity profiles”) to states to give them a picture of what their current teacher distribution patterns look like. States don’t have to use this data, however, if they feel that they have stronger, more recent information at their fingertips.

And importantly, it doesn’t appear that these equity profiles will be released publicly, at least not initially. Instead, state chiefs will get to review them for about a month before the public can see them. That means it will be harder for researchers (and, ummm, reporters) to say now which states are doing well when it comes to teacher equity and which states have a ways to go.

Some other key takeaways from the guidance:

•At a minimum, state plans have to consider whether low-income and minority kids are being taught by inexperienced, ineffective, or unqualified teachers at a rate that’s higher than other students in the state. That’s not really a new or surprising requirement: It’s something that state were supposed to have been doing the past 12 years under NCLB, which was signed into law in 2002.

•States aren’t required to use any specific strategies to fix their equity gaps. They can consider things like targeted professional development, giving educators more time for collaboration, revamping teacher preparation at post-secondary institutions, and coming up with new compensation systems.

•States have to consult broadly with stakeholders to get a sense of the problem and what steps should be taken to address it.

•States also have to figure out the “root causes” of teacher distribution gaps, and then figure out a way to work with districts to address them. For instance, if a state decides that the “root cause” of inequitable teacher distribution is lack of support and professional development for teachers, it would have to find a way to work with institutions of higher education and other potential partners to get educators the help they need, by hiring mentors or coaches, for example. States can consider the “geographical” context of districts when making these decisions. (In other words, states may want to try a different set of interventions on rural schools as opposed to urban and suburban schools.)

•In speaking with reporters about the plan, department officials said they have a number of levers at their disposal to be sure that states come up with good teacher distribution plans and follow through on them, including putting a state’s waiver on high-risk status, or placing a condition on it. They can also use the authority of the Office of Civil Rights, which can investigate district practices. Do you think they’ll actually pull any of these levers?

This isn’t the first time that the feds have asked states to outline their plans on teacher distribution, but the results so far haven’t been anything to brag about. Fewer than half of 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 kids, found them to be pretty weak in key areas in this 2006 report.

What’s more, the department initially wanted teacher equity plans to be part of the bar states had to jump over to renew their waivers from the NCLB law. But the Obama administration abandoned this idea last fall, ostensibly so it could come up with a broader “50 state” strategy that would impact all states, not just those with waivers.

So what do advocates think?

The proposal has already gotten the thumbs-up from the American Federation of Teachers, which has been highly skeptical of the idea of holding teachers to account based on student test scores. That’s a policy that’s been a core piece of many of the Obama administration’s K-12 initiatives, including Race to the Top and waivers, but it’s not really a major feature of the guidance.

Here’s a snippet from a statement by Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT:

We must address not simply what the data tell us today, but ask what strategies should be adopted to recruit, retain, and support great teachers, especially at hard-to-staff schools. We can start by ensuring teachers at these schools have the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs well—supportive, collaborative leadership; high-quality teaching materials; lower class sizes; up-to-date technology and facilities; and professional-development opportunities."

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, is also pretty happy:

States, like the U.S. Department of Education, care deeply about ensuring that every child has access to great instruction. These solutions don't come from Washington, D.C., but from local communities and states working diligently to improve instruction for every child. We look forward to working with states and districts to address inequities in the system, and these plans are a good place to start."

The Education Trust is optimstic, but says the ball is in states’ courts at this point:

Today's guidance creates an opportunity for widespread action on behalf of low-income students and students of color. It's now up to leaders at every level—in Washington and in statehouses, at board meetings and community meetings—to take advantage of this opportunity."