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States Wrestle With How to Get Good Teachers in All Schools

By Alyson Klein — June 30, 2015 8 min read
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Last year, with much fanfare, the Obama administration declared that it would tackle the tricky issue of equitable teacher distribution, calling on states to revise their plans for making sure that high-poverty schools get their fair share of qualified educators.

Now most states have answered the call, rewriting plans that initially stemmed from requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act.

But it’s an open question whether the work that went into these updated plans—some of which are more than 100 pages long and include an eye-glazing level of detail—will actually lead to any real progress.

While some states used the opportunity to come up with new ideas for improving teacher quality and distribution, others simply restated or repackaged strategies already underway.

And it’s still unclear how the U.S. Department of Education will hold states to their promises.

The good news is that, in general, the plans are “definitely richer this time around,” compared to the original batch of nearly a decade ago, said Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice-president of the Education Trust, an advocacy organization in Washington that focuses on poor and minority students.

The real test will be implementation, she added.

“If a strong plan is put in the cabinet as being done, if a strong plan is not adjusted and monitored and revisited, it’s not going to yield outcomes for kids,” she said.

Sharing the Talent

The U.S. Department of Education has asked states to update their plans for assuring that highly qualified teachers are equitably spread across high- and low-poverty schools. The department is reviewing the plans and has said it will work with states whose plans don’t meet its requirements. Here’s a sampling of some typical–or particularly striking–ideas taken from plans posted on the department’s website by late June:

Florida: Will identify and convene the state’s most effective teachers so that they can help communicate best practices to others.

Idaho: Cited strategies already underway, such as leadership bonuses for teachers. Pledged to explore the feasibility and impact of other ideas, including state-funded loan forgiveness, support for special education paraprofessionals who want to become teachers, and teacher signing bonuses.

Indiana: Identified working conditions as one factor affecting equitable teacher distribution. Promised to survey first-, second-, and third-year teachers and principals to get a sense of how educator preparation can be improved.

Kansas: Touted a plan, already in the works, to bolster mentorship opportunities for the newest teachers. Cited a component of its educator evaluation system to identify teachers’ individual professional learning needs.

Massachusetts: Plans to create school-level reports to show how much exposure students in a particular school have had with teachers who were given a low effectiveness rating, have high rates of absenteeism, have been teaching for less than three years, or aren’t highly qualified.

Missouri: Will work with community members to pinpoint strategies for helping educators navigate the challenge of urban settings. Developing exit surveys to help figure out why teachers leave urban, rural, and/or high-poverty schools.

Nebraska: Promises to increase access to high-quality educators through distance learning programs. Will require its lowest-performing schools to address professional development.

New Jersey: Aims to help address teacher turnover by supporting novice teachers through intensive mentoring.

New York: Pledges to continue providing technical support and training to districts implementing states evaluation system. Will work on bolstering teacher preparation in part by continuing to support programs with a rich clinical component.

Texas: Will develop guidance and tools for local districts to create their own plans for teacher distribution. Will explore strategies to recognize and reward high-performing teachers.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, state plans

But the department’s teacher-equity push, billed as a “50 state strategy” to tackle the long-standing problem of educator distribution, is murky when it comes to how the department will hold states’ feet to the fire, said Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization in Washington, who has studied some of the plans.

“I don’t see a lot of hard policy changes coming out of this, either from executive action or legislation,” said Mr. Aldeman, who served in the department earlier in the Obama administration.

Equity Push

This isn’t the first time the federal government has asked states to address the teacher distribution question. The NCLB law called for states to ensure all teachers were highly qualified by the 2005-06 school year. (States got a one-year extension.)

But, early last year, an Education Week review found that fewer than half of states had filed separate equity plans with the department detailing how they aimed to ensure their most qualified teachers were distributed evenly among low- and high-poverty schools. Of the state plans that were filed, many sat on the virtual shelf for years without an update.

Back in 2013, the department announced plans to ask states to address teacher distribution in order to renew the waivers they may have had from provisions of the NCLB law. But it ultimately scrapped that plan, in part because both the federal agency and the states already had so much on their plates due to the waivers.

Instead, the department decided to ask every state, whether it had a waiver or not, to update its teacher-equity plans. In addition, the agency released “equity profiles” for each state to give officials an idea of the scope of their teacher-distribution problems.

The Education Department has said it will work with states whose plans don’t meet its requirements, which include steps like scrutinizing data to figure out what’s driving inequities and reaching out to districts, educators, and their unions to find fixes. And it will continue to release data on teacher distribution every two years to help track states’ progress. That could put the next data release in December of 2016, weeks before the Obama administration leaves town for good.

But it’s anyone’s guess whether the department would go further—by withholding federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students’, for example—if a state didn’t take the department’s feedback to heart or didn’t follow through on implementation of its plan.

Raymonde Charles, a spokeswoman for the department, said taking back federal funds isn’t completely off the table, but it’s far from the department’s first choice. “We believe that the best way to ensure quick and effective remedies for students is to work to support states on their plans,” she said.

Limitations

Thirty-one states elected to have their plans reviewed by external experts through a review spearheaded by the Equitable Access Support Network, an initiative of the Education Department, prior to submitting their plans to the department by June 1. And another handful of states were given a slight extension. The department has posted some plans on its website, and is reviewing all of the plans, as it will continue to do so throughout the summer.

Education Week examined more than a dozen of the state plans that were on the department’s site by the end of June, looking for common elements and standout strategies.

In developing their plans, the department asked states to take a close look at their teacher-distribution data and identify “root” causes of inequities.

For instance, Missouri flagged a high percentage of out-of-field teachers working in high-poverty schools at the secondary level. In high-poverty and rural secondary schools, for example, between 10.3 and 10.6 percent of teachers are leading classes in a subject they’re not certified in. That’s 4 percent higher than in lower-poverty secondary schools.

The state’s partial answer to the disparity: Provide some sort of enticement to attract better-prepared teachers to hard-to-staff schools. The state will spend the fall identifying such incentives and officially roll out the initiative next spring.

To better support teachers in high-poverty, high-minority schools, meanwhile, Missouri is proposing steps like beefing up its standards for teacher mentoring and induction, and establishing “exit surveys” for teachers, including those in high-poverty, high-minority, or rural schools. Those strategies were common to a number of state applications.

Massachusetts concluded that its teacher-distribution problems are visible even within individual schools. Veteran teachers may be “indulged” by being given the “easiest” crop of students, while teachers who are good at managing behavior might get the rowdiest classes, the state wrote.

To help schools begin to cope with this problem, the Bay State has created school-level reports to show how much exposure students in a particular school have had with teachers who were given a low effectiveness rating, have high rates of absenteeism, have been teaching for less than three years, or aren’t highly qualified.

Ohio also pledged to shine a spotlight on equity issues through data. The Buckeye State is developing an “Educator Workforce Index,” which will make it easier for district leaders to review information about their teachers from a range of sources and figure out which schools might need the most help.

Existing Strategies

But, in many cases, states didn’t necessarily cook up new strategies for addressing teacher inequity, instead electing to provide a detailed account of programs that were already in the works.

For example, Montana noted that, since 2011, its has used federal school turnaround money to place additional staff members at low-performing schools, including on American Indian reservations or in isolated rural areas, and to increase professional development. And New Jersey pointed to steps it took beginning back in 2013 to ratchet up the required GPAs of would-be teachers.

Others states promised to double down—or do better outreach—on work already underway. Michigan, for instance, pledged, among other steps, to increase awareness of federal teacher loan-forgiveness programs offered to prospective educators willing to commit to working in high-poverty schools. And Florida said it would work to communicate the “power and purpose of [value-add metrics]” so that teachers understand them.

There also are a lot of issues effecting teacher distribution that states don’t have control over, including collective bargaining agreements, a reality that some states hammered home in materials submitted to the department.

Montana, for instance, noted that it is firmly committed to making improvements when it comes to teacher distribution, but that state officials don’t have free rein in some crucial areas.

“The state does not control the hiring and placement of teachers in our schools,” wrote Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent, in a May 29 letter accompanying the state’s plan. “These decisions are made by locally elected boards of trustees, not the state.”

Quality vs. Effectiveness

And at least one state noted another potential shortcoming in the department’s initiative—the definition of highly qualified teacher.

Under the department’s guidelines, the states’ plans must address the distribution of highly qualified teachers as defined under the NCLB law (meaning those who have a bachelor’s degree and state certification). But in its plan, New Jersey concluded that, while it has already made a lot of progress in ensuring high-minority schools have access to teachers that are considered “highly qualified,” that designation “lacks a measure of skills to adequately deliver content knowledge.”

Instead, New Jersey, like most other states is moving toward a new evaluation system that takes effectiveness into account. And, not just anyone can get an effective rating, the state argues. In 2013-14, for example, just 23 percent of the Garden’s State’s teachers got the highest rating possible.

New Jersey did not, however, look at whether students in high-poverty schools have access to just as many effective teachers as their more privileged peers. The state argued that the year-old system is too new to provide that kind of school level data – and that just publishing “raw numbers” could be harmful to educators and students.

Instead, it detailed efforts to help teachers in the lowest-performing districts, including dispatching 150 “achievement” coaches to provide professional development to their peers throughout the state.

In general, states are in “very different places” when it comes to their ability to actually capture teacher-effectiveness data, said Ms. Brookins Santelises of the Education Trust. Given the transition to new standards in most places “it’s going to take some time to get that data so that it more accurately represents where teachers are.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as States Struggle With How To Ensure Good Teachers in All Schools

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