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How Are States Progressing When It Comes to Teacher Distribution?

By Alyson Klein — December 22, 2014 4 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education gave education researchers a very special holiday present on Friday evening: Reams upon reams of state and district level data on the equitable distribution of teachers. (I know what you’re thinking, education researchers: “Thanks. Mr. Secretary. But next time, just get us a Disney’s ‘Frozen’ sing-along boom box.”)

The state-specific “teacher equity profiles” are part of the Obama administration’s “50 state strategy” aimed at fixing a perennial education policy problem: Making sure that poor and minority children have access to as many qualified, experienced educators as their more advantaged peers. States were given the profiles in early November—and had a chance to review (and potentially make changes) to them. Then the Education Department released them officially, online, the Friday night before Christmas when everyone is off sipping egg nog and not thinking much about teacher quality.

So what’s actually in the profiles? Lots of information for states about the qualifications of teachers in high-poverty schools, compared to lower-poverty schools. There’s data on the percentage of first year teachers who work in high-poverty schools and data on the percentage of teachers in high-poverty schools who aren’t state certified or licensed. There’s information on the percentage of teachers at a school who have been absent for more than 10 days, as well as salary data. It’s all broken down to the state and district levels. Much of it was collected from states and districts by the department’s Office of Civil Rights.

What’s not in these profiles? Any sense of how states and districts are actually progressing when it comes to the policy the U.S. Department of Education has been pushing as a priority for the past six years, through No Child Left Behind waivers and Race to the Top: teacher effectiveness.

After all, veteran teachers who have state certification and a degree in the subject they are teaching may still not be able to move the needle on student achievement. And from looking at this data, we’d have no idea whether high-poverty schools in a particular state have a lot of effective teachers compared to lower-poverty schools.

Part of the problem, of course, with providing hard data on state’s teacher effectiveness, is that the work is relatively new. Many states are still trying to figure out how to gauge and evaluate effectiveness—they haven’t yet made the leap to the distribution of effective teachers. Meanwhile, states have been asked to address teacher quality for years, particularly since the No Child Left Behind Act, which passed in 2001, included a host of requirements on highly qualified teachers. (More on whether folks think the administration’s 50-state teacher equity strategy is emphasizing the right things here.)

So will this make any real difference when it comes to the equitable distribution of teachers? That’s really unclear. The administration originally wanted states to address teacher distribution in order to keep their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. And then they totally backed off that idea and instead decided to come up with some sort of broader strategy that all would impact all states, instead of just waiver states.

After a lot of foot-dragging, fanfare and announcements about the upcoming announcement, the administration finally unveiled its plan: Get states to design new teacher equity plans and get them to the Education Department by June 1. The profiles are supposed to help inform state plans, but state don’t absolutely have to use this data if they think they have better data.

How can the Education Department make sure that states work on improving teacher distribution? That’s also up in the air. State waiver renewal applications are due March 31. And state teacher distribution plans are due June 1. So it’s unclear what recourse the department has if a state’s plan doesn’t show up on time, or at all, or is really lame. It’s also hard to see what sort of enforcement power the department has to make states actually follow through on their plans. After all, states have been asked to write similar plans in the past, and they’ve mostly just stayed on the shelf, without major updates. What’s more, states have pointed out that they really have very limited power in some cases over teacher distribution, since a lot of that work is done at the district level.

How else might be the profiles be of use? The profiles are very readable and they are a potential boon to regional education reporters, who want ready, easily digestible information at their fingertips on how their state is actually progressing on this issue. That could help bring public scrutiny to the problem.

So what does the data actually look like? It depends on what state you’re in. In some cases, however, there are deep disparities in teacher quality between high-poverty or high-minority schools and schools serving a lower proportion of disadvantaged or minority kids.

For instance, in Missouri, nearly 30 percent of teachers in high poverty were absent more than 10 days a year, compared to nearly 17 percent of teachers in low-minority schools. And in Mississippi, nearly 11 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools are in their first year in the profession, as opposed to 4.5 percent for lower-poverty schools. In Arizona, nearly 10 percent of teachers in high-minority schools are in their first year, as opposed to nearly 6 percent in lower-minority schools.

But in other states, the disparities aren’t as stark. In New Hampshire, 4.2 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools are in their first year, as opposed to about 3 percent in lower-poverty schools.