Feds Eye Teacher ‘Equitable Distribution’ Through Waivers

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 29, 2013 3 min read
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States that want to renew their waivers from aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law will be given yet another task: To make sure at-risk students have access to the best teachers.

It’s the latest wrinkle in the U.S. Department of Education’s flexibility initiative, which has grown ever more complicated in the past few months, as colleagues Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein have been reporting.

The waivers release states and school districts from various provisions of the law and give them more latitude over the spending of their Title I funds for at-risk students, but require them to meet new conditions. For instance, states had to promise to begin implementing new teacher-evaluation systems by 2014-15 in order to qualify.

About 40 states have waivers, though the teacher-evaluation piece has been by far the most challenging to get right.

The waiver-renewal guidance issued yesterday requires states to document the steps they’ve taken so far on ensuring disadvantaged students and students of color have access to high-quality teachers. And by October of 2015, they’ll need to integrate the results of their new teacher-evaluation systems into this work.

For true-blue edu-nerds, this is going to ring a few bells. That’s because the No Child Left Behind Act and the 2009 economic-stimulus bill already required states to have “equity plans” in place. The last we heard about them was way back in 2006, when the Bush Administration demanded states submit them for review. Since then, a few states have updated their plans, but most states seem to have forgotten them entirely.

The federal department also seeks to get districts to improve how they’re spending their share of the $2.5 million in federal teacher-quality funds, and to make sure that the professional development “is evidence-based and is intended to have a substantial, measurable, and positive impact on educators’ subject-matter knowledge and instructional practices and student academic achievement.” (I’ve written at length about the difficulties districts face in tracing how effective their PD spending is.)

In part, these new demands appear to be a type of ex post facto response to the criticism offered by civil-rights groups, some of whom have been deeply concerned that the waivers don’t do enough to protect poor and minority students.

UPDATED, 9/30, 3:20 p.m.
Former U.S. ED Chief of Staff Joanne Weiss says that the Education Department did view distribution as a goal from the beginning, but evaluation systems were only coming on stream then. Also, she notes, the NCLB law requires distribution of qualified but not effective teachers. (Value-added and teacher evaluation were not on the radar screen back in 2002.)

The Education Trust, a key proponent of teacher-distribution equity, still basically finds the new guidelines to be pretty weak soup.

“While this is a step in the right direction, they’ve undercut the power of this approach by being far too vague in what is required, especially in light of the [poor] track record on equitable access,” the organization said in a statement.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might be wondering just what states are going to face as they try to make good on this latest promise. You need only read this story from a while back to know that the politics of teacher distribution are quite tricky. Teachers’ unions have tended to be nervous of federal action on teacher placement because of how teacher assignment interacts with contract issues, seniority, and potentially, pay.

Meanwhile, policy folks largely agree that forced teacher transfers are a nonstarter, but monetary incentives, offered in the District of Columbia and Newark among other places, might be one idea. Be sure, also, to take a look at the initiatives I profiled in this 2010 story.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.