Special Report

Stimulus Bill Spurs Focus on Teachers

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 09, 2009 7 min read
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The recently enacted economic-stimulus bill requires every state to take steps to improve teacher effectiveness, as well as to tackle one of the most pervasive problems in K-12 education: inequities in access to top teaching talent for poor and minority children.

In those two provisions, which governors must address to get their cuts of $53.6 billion in state fiscal-stabilization aid, some experts see glimpses into the future of federal teacher-quality policy.

“We have a lot of evidence that this administration is very interested in making effective teaching a priority,” said Sabrina W.M. Laine, the director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality at Learning Point Associates, a federally financed technical-assistance center in Naperville, Ill. “The stimulus bill is wide open for interpretation, but it provides the proverbial shot in the arm for equitable distribution and for discussions to move a reauthorization bill [on education] forward.”

State Action On Distribution

California provides a tool kit to districts to help them implement teacher-equity strategies.

Delaware officials are wrapping up a study of the working conditions and policies that contribute to an uneven distribution of teacher talent.

Ohio’s office of educator equity provides tools and technical assistance to districts on the equitable distribution of teachers.Rhode Island encourages districts to conduct reviews of gap and trend data to ensure equitable distribution of teachers within and across districts.

Tennessee oversees a teacher-equity project in six of its urban districts. It examines the distribution of teachers by qualification and experience level, as well as the distribution of effective teachers, using “teacher effect” data generated from the state’s “value added” longitudinal-data system.

The U.S. Department of Education cited California, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Wyoming for not updating, monitoring, or reporting progress on their state plans.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Whether the language in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will have an actual effect on state and local teacher policies depends on the much-anticipated guidance for the state stabilization fund and on U.S. Department of Education oversight, analysts say.

An administration official said the language is intended to strike a balance between what states can do given their current capacity and the expectations for them to be more forward-looking on teacher quality.

“The intent here is not to expect some sort of dramatic change overnight,” Marshall “Mike” S. Smith, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said about the teacher provisions. “It is, however, to expect states to see that this is a fundamental inequity and to begin to address it in a thoughtful way, and in a way that measurably advances the ball.”

Lax Implementation

The stimulus measure’s provision on equitable distribution of teachers is identical to language in the federal No Child Left Behind Act that requires states to put plans in place to ensure that poor and minority students aren’t taught disproportionately by out-of-field, inexperienced, or unqualified teachers. The NCLB law also charges states with monitoring districts’ progress on instituting strategies to address those inequities.

Such strategies can include induction programs to help hard-to-staff schools retain qualified teachers, improvement of working conditions in schools, and establishment of differentiated pay and other recruitment incentives.

Although states and districts began to launch those initiatives before the law passed, the NCLB-required “equity plans” were meant to spearhead a coordinated, less piecemeal approach to improving educator human capital, Ms. Laine indicated.

Not much momentum developed under President George W. Bush, some experts say. His first education secretary, Rod Paige, did not enforce the teacher-distribution provision, while the plans submitted under his successor, Margaret Spellings, fell short, according to the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of poor children.

“What’s pretty clear is the Bush administration education officials made a decision that they were pushing so hard on accountability and assessment and [adequate yearly progress], they weren’t about to do this too,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the group.

In part, that was because of states’?archaic recordkeeping, a former Bush administration official indicated.

“It was difficult to move the needle on teacher-quality efforts in the states at the time,” M. René Islas, who oversaw the issue at the Education Department between 2002 and 2006, wrote in an e-mail. “They lacked the data systems and the incentive.”

In recent months, Education Department monitors have reviewed about 20 states’ efforts. Although some have done little to implement their plans, a handful of others have stepped up their technical assistance and could be well primed to seek financial assistance under the stimulus legislation.

Ohio, for instance, established an office of educator equity to provide data-analysis tools to districts and technical assistance.

“When we’re able to pull out the key pieces of data around teacher equity, around ‘highly qualified’ teachers, and around inexperience, ... and implement effective strategies to resolve those inequities, we can begin to see progress,” said Wesley G. Williams, the office’s director.

From 2006-07 to 2007-08, the number of Ohio urban classes staffed by a teacher who did not meet the federal “highly qualified” definition under the NCLB law fell from more than 13,000 to about 4,400 statewide, he said.

Delaware state officials, in collaboration with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Education Laboratory, a federally funded research organization, have commissioned a study to investigate policies and conditions that lead to an unequal distribution of talent. Due out next fall, the study will analyze both state data and surveys of teachers and administrators.

“It’s kind of looking behind the curtain of the data, as it were, to how we can answer these questions and find information on how to reduce inequity and determine what the barriers are,” said Patricia A. Bigelow, an education associate for special accountability at the Delaware education department.

Effectiveness Conundrum

If the teacher-distribution provision is old news, the language on teacher effectiveness in the stimulus legislation marks the first such requirement for every state.

It comes as a number of groups, most recently the National Title I Association, are calling on states to investigate output-based measures of teacher effectiveness, rather than input-based proxies, such as the existing “highly qualified” definition in the NCLB law. But such a shift won’t be easy.

“People are not all saying the same thing when they talk about teacher effectiveness,’ said Ms. Laine of the teacher-quality center. “While it’s a very good sign that this administration is focused on highly effective teachers, ... states need to start by defining ‘effectiveness.”

Several states, and some districts, now endorse performance-based teacher evaluations that define good teaching, determine which teachers exhibit such practices, and identify those who fall short for assistance. Others are reorienting professional development toward sustained school-based approaches that researchers say are more likely to change teacher behavior and improve student achievement than “one shot” workshops.

Some efforts to improve teacher effectiveness have proved politically challenging. The federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a performance-pay program, has promoted interest in using test scores to estimate teacher effectiveness. That approach has generally not been favored by teachers’ unions. The TIF program received an additional $200 million in the stimulus.

Additionally, a limited number of states have the ability to match teacher records to student data, and even those with the technical capacity have not always used their data to estimate teacher effectiveness. The unions fear such links could ultimately be used to establish punitive policies, and they have successfully lobbied legislators to curb the use of “teacher effect” data in some states. (“Growth Data for Teachers Under Review,” Oct. 12, 2008.)

But the possibilities of “value added” are enticing to policymakers. Officials in Tennessee, the lone state that has incorporated teacher-effect data into personnel decisions, are awaiting new data that will reveal whether efforts to attract effective teachers to the most challenged schools have improved results, said Julie McCargar, the state director of federal programs.

“I think we are well poised to be a model,” she said.

Innovation Fund Beckons

Still, the Education Trust’s Ms. Haycock called the effectiveness language in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a “placeholder” that acknowledges that many states will have to resort to proxies for measuring teacher effectiveness.

It is unclear whether Secretary Duncan will demand specific data, or evidence of progress on teacher distribution, for states to receive stabilization funds, she said.

“If the governors say this is where we are now when they submit their assurances, and they’re in exactly the same place next year, will they get their second payment?” said Ms. Haycock. “It’s an interesting question.”

Charles Barone, the director of federal policy for the Washington-based Democrats for Education Reform, expressed skepticism. “I think everyone will get the stabilization funding,” he said. “I just don’t think withholding that [money] is politically viable.”

But the Obama administration could push the envelope in other ways, Mr. Barone said, such as through the $5 billion in discretionary “innovation” money the stimulus law allows the secretary of education to award.

“If [the administration] is not poised to ask anything in exchange for the $5 billion,” Mr. Barone said, “I think it’s game over for any real reform in this administration.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Stimulus Bill Spurs Focus On Teachers


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