Scrutiny Rises on Placement of Best Teachers

By Michele McNeil — February 18, 2014 7 min read
Christasia Springs, right, 11, gets a hug from teacher Courtney Sowell in a class with fellow students Josiah Crudup, left, 10, and Zyonna Austin, 11, at Ashley Park Pre-K-8 School in Charlotte, N.C. The school is part of a district project to better deploy the best teachers.
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The U.S. Department of Education is developing a 50-state strategy that may finally put some teeth into a key part of the No Child Left Behind Act that has been largely ignored for the past 12 years: the inequitable distribution of the nation’s best teachers.

Central to the federal strategy will be a mix of enforcement and bureaucratic levers to prod states into making sure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective and unqualified teachers at higher rates than their peers.

Among those levers, according to the department: investigations of districts and schools using the power of the department’s office for civil rights, or OCR; new state teacher-equity plans; and perhaps new rules for future NCLB waiver renewals.

“We don’t want to miss out on any opportunities where we can move states forward,” Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in a wide-ranging briefing with reporters late last month. “And we also recognize that every state has different laws. ... It’s quite complex when we look across a 50-state strategy.”

Complex indeed, said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington.

“There’s no set of plans that will make teachers be equitably distributed,” he said, adding that states have little power to influence where teachers teach since hiring and placement are, for the most part, local decisions.

Teacher Courtney Sowell leads a small-group reading activity at Ashley Park Pre-K-8 School in Charlotte, N.C. The district's efforts to equitably distribute its best teachers among schools have drawn praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

And that’s just part of the reason why distribution of teachers is such a thorny issue. Inequitable distribution might take place between districts, or between schools within the same district. There could be problems within an individual school, or a single grade level.

What’s more, policymakers are only now getting a handle on how to judge effectiveness, as states continue to work on more sophisticated evaluation systems that judge teachers on student growth. For years, state and federal law have focused on easier-to-measure factors such as years of experience.

“What we advocate is using those indicators that we know are solid as soon as possible,” said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development for the Education Trust, a Washington organization that advocates on behalf of at-risk students. “As evaluation systems get on their feet and fully functioning, then we should look at evaluation results.”

Enshrined in Law

Under the No Child Left Behind Act as written in 2001, states were required to make sure all their teachers were “highly qualified” by 2005-06. (The Education Department ultimately postponed the deadline for one year.) The focus was on a teacher’s years of experience, certification, and education.

But another NCLB provision, which was largely ignored in President George W. Bush’s administration and during most of the Obama administration, required states to ensure that poor and minority students were not taught by unqualified teachers at higher rates than their peers.

A review of teacher-quality plans on the Education Department’s website shows that fewer than half the states have on file separate “equity” plans that address such teacher-distribution issues, and the vast majority of those plans are several years old.

What’s more, a 2006 report by the Education Trust found those plans woefully lacking.

In all, only five states have updated any of their teacher-quality plans since President Obama took office in 2009.

Under the direction of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the department tried to modernize the NCLB law’s teacher-quality language by shifting the emphasis away from a teacher’s qualifications to effectiveness, and by linking a state’s efforts to whether it could get a renewed NCLB waiver. States balked at that aggressive tactic, and the department backtracked late last year.

“We don’t have one district that systemically identifies their most successful teachers and principals and places them with the kids and communities that need them most,” Mr. Duncan said in the Jan. 30 briefing.

Federal Pressure Points

The U.S. Department of Education is working on a 50-state strategy to improve at-risk students’ access to highly effective teachers.

Here are leverage points for the department:

Office for Civil Rights

The department is using its civil rights office to investigate inequities in districts that affect poor and minority students. As one example, the office has launched investigations that resulted in more services for English-language learners.

Updated State Plans

The No Child Left Behind Act required states to develop plans to ensure teachers are highly qualified, and that poor and minority students have equal access to such teachers. Federal officials haven’t required those plans to be updated in years.

NCLB Waivers

Forty-two states plus the District of Columbia have waivers under the NCLB law, which come with strings from the department. Federal officials could attach future renewals to states’ equity commitments.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

One exception might be Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., he said.

But advocates and state officials say there is good work going on, beyond Charlotte. Both the 72,500-student Guilford County, N.C., district and the 57,000-student Boston school system are known for their programs that place some of the most-effective teachers in the neediest classrooms.

But even in Charlotte, which is much lauded for its “strategic staffing” initiative, administrators recognize the limitations of moving teachers and principals around.

When it began in 2008, that district’s staffing initiative, which placed a high-impact principal and team of effective teachers in low-performing schools, was in seven schools. This year, only one school is “strategically staffed,” as the 145,000-student district shifts its focus to one that it calls an “opportunity culture,” in which the best teachers become teacher-leaders and reach more students, and the best teachers in other districts are recruited.

“As a short-term strategy, we have to put our best people where they’re needed the most,” said Ann Clark, the chief academic officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. “But if we’re really going to eliminate the achievement gap, then we need an effective leader in every building and an effective teacher in every classroom.

“That’s a big, audacious goal,” she said. “With 9,000 teachers, you can’t get there overnight.”

Outdated Emphasis

In the absence of a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal officials must navigate the outdated NCLB’s emphasis on qualifications of teachers, versus their effectiveness. Some policy experts wonder how far the Education Department can stretch the law to incorporate new ideas around effectiveness.

Regardless, in developing a new national strategy, federal officials will have to walk a fine line between giving states room to maneuver while satisfying civil rights groups and addressing the fundamental problem of teacher inequities.

“The extent to which the feds can help states and districts to gather the right kind of data and to identify where and how the problems exist can be helpful,” said Segun Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the 3-million-member National Education Association. “The extent to which they start to prescribe exactly what to do with that data and how to move it, that’s where folks will say they’re being a bit too prescriptive.”

It’s unclear whether the new 50-state strategy will assuage civil rights groups. When the department reversed course on its waiver-renewal guidance last year, those groups were angry.

“The department [doesn’t] have any meaningful data on whether states are closing the teacher-quality gap or providing equal access to common-core-aligned curriculum,” Wade Henderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement at the time, on Nov. 15.

More recently, in a Feb. 12 letter to Mr. Duncan, members of three congressional caucuses representing minority groups—and including prominent Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives—argued that the teacher-equity issues need to be addressed as part of the waiver-extension process.

“This is an important equity policy that has rarely, if ever, been enforced,” the letter says.

Collecting Key Data

What education policy experts do seem to agree on is the need for better data around teacher distribution.

“We don’t know how much of a problem this really is,” said Mr. Minnich, of the CCSSO.

The department’s office for civil rights collects data on teacher experience, out-of-field teaching, and teacher absenteeism, which can be a jumping-off point for investigations into civil rights violations. In 2015-16, the office proposes to require schools to submit data on teacher turnover.

Officials with the OCR said teacher distribution factors prominently into their work. For example, new investigations into whether school closings adversely affect minority students look at the quality of the schools, and the teaching forces, to which they are reassigned.

In another example, a July 2013 agreement with the OCR requires a Colorado district to, among other things, ensure that English-learners receive instruction from highly qualified teachers and determine whether a group of students require compensatory services for the failure to provide highly qualified teachers during the previous school year.

The OCR’s work—which has been ramped up in all areas under the Obama administration—will be a significant part of the department’s 50-state teacher-equity strategy. During the 2012-13 fiscal year, the office fielded about 10,000 complaints, on a myriad of topics, one-third of which became the subjects of formal investigations. The office is expecting to field more complaints this year.

Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, dismisses excuses that teacher contracts make moving teachers difficult, or that there aren’t enough great teachers for everyone.

So why do inequities persist?

“Sometimes it’s misunderstanding. Sometimes it’s failure to keep the eye on the prize,” Ms. Lhamon said. “Why it happens doesn’t really matter. The law prohibits it.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as Placement of Teachers Gets Scrutiny


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