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States Get Federal Running Room on Teacher-Equity Plans

By Alyson Klein — November 24, 2014 4 min read
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The Obama administration’s plan to help boost the equitable distribution of teachers—a key goal of the 12-year-old No Child Left Behind Act that has gone largely unenforced—appears to give states a lot of running room to figure out just what these equity plans should look like, without clear, strong federal levers for ensuring that states follow through.

The teacher-equity guidance, released by the U.S. Department of Education Nov. 10, is aimed at ensuring that disadvantaged students have access to as many highly qualified teachers as other students. It 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.

In addition, if a state with a waiver from provisions of the NCLB law isn’t able to come up with a strong plan and follow through on it, the Obama administration can put its waiver on high-risk status, or place a condition on it, department officials said. The department can also use the authority of its office for civil rights to investigate district practices. But it’s an open question whether the agency will actually use any of these sticks.

The equity plans are due by June 1; they were originally due in April 2015, to align with states’ NCLB waiver-renewal applications. The extra time is supposed to help states consult with “stakeholders,” including teachers’ unions, according to a letter to state chiefs sent Nov. 10 by Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

To help states do this work, the department is also releasing data showing what their current teacher-distribution patterns look like. States don’t have to use these data, however, if they feel that they have stronger, more recent information available.

But the June 1 deadline also means that the teacher-equity process will not be part of the waiver-renewal process, which represents one of the Obama administration’s last serious levers over state accountability systems.

Guidance Highlights

Some other key takeaways from the guidance:

• At a minimum, state plans have to consider whether low-income and minority students are being taught by inexperienced, ineffective, or unqualified teachers at a rate that’s higher than those of other students in the state. That’s something that states already were supposed to have been doing the past 12 years under the NCLB law.

• 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 postsecondary institutions, and coming up with new compensation systems.

• States also have to figure out the “root causes” of teacher-distribution gaps, as well as how to address them. For instance, if a state decides that the root cause is lack of support and professional development, 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.)

Weak Plans

Fewer than half of states have separate teacher-equity plans on file with the Education 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 students, found them to be weak in key areas in a 2006 report that represented one of the last comprehensive reviews of those plans.

What’s more, the department initially wanted teacher-equity plans to be part of the bar states had to reach to renew their waivers from provisions of 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.

The teacher-equity proposal has gotten support from the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.6 million-member union that has been highly skeptical of the idea of holding teachers to account based on student test scores. That policy has been a core part of many of the Obama administration’s K-12 initiatives, including Race to the Top and NCLB waivers, but it’s not really a major feature of the guidance.

“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,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, said in a statement. “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 pleased with the guidance, saying in a statement that the best solutions for teacher distribution come from the state level.

The Education Trust, meanwhile, said the ball is in states’ courts at this point: “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,” the organization wrote in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as States Get Federal Running Room on Teacher-Equity Plans

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