The U.S. Department of Education has given 16 states the stamp of approval on their plans for making sure that students in high-poverty schools get access to their fair share of well-qualified teachers.
But questions loom about just how big a difference those plans and others still awaiting approval will really make: The Education Department has required similar plans in the past, and they haven’t always been implemented faithfully.
Receiving the nod last week were: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, nearly three dozen states are awaiting a thumbs-up, and the administration says those plans will be approved on a rolling basis.
The states approved last week all agreed to take steps to bolster teacher quality and make sure that low-income students have access to good teachers. Connecticut, for instance, is providing training for principals charged with turning around low-performing schools. Minnesota is enticing paraprofessionals to go into teaching by offering incentives like student-loan forgiveness for those who teach in high-need subject areas. And Nevada has a new state law creating a pay-for-performance system geared in part toward recruiting and retaining teachers for high-needs schools.
Advocates for improving teacher equity who reviewed some of the newly revamped plans—which states were required to turn in June as part of the Education Department’s national strategy to improve teacher equity—say that good ideas were proposed, but that the real test will come in implementation.
“Few issues in education are more important than ensuring equitable access to high-quality teachers, and the Department of Education is right to focus attention on this topic,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, an advocacy organization, in a statement released by the Education Department. “Clear action plans are a first step, but we’ve got to make sure that these plans are actually enacted.”
Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, agreed with that assessment in a press call, even as he praised states for coming up with thoughtful solutions tailored to their individual circumstances.
“These are just plans, and unless the states continue to implement these, they will just end up being plans,” he said.
There seems to be no clear enforcement mechanism for making sure that the proposals are actually put into practice. The department had initially planned to link states’ efforts on teacher equity to renewal of their waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. It abandoned that strategy, in part because waiver states already had a lot on their plates, including crafting teacher evaluations that take student outcomes into account.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters on the press call that the department is continuing to offer support to states, not just in crafting their plans, but in helping them to come to fruition.
For instance, the administration will offer quarterly “equity labs” in specific states, bringing together teachers, administrators, and others to help think through implementation.
When asked whether the agency would consider withholding funds from a state or placing its waiver on high-risk status if it didn’t comply with its plan, Duncan said that kind of action wasn’t off the table, but it’s far from his first choice.
“We want to give people every chance to be successful,” he said. “We want to ensure that we’re not just the enforcement arm.”
Earlier this year, the department said it will work with states whose plans don’t initially meet its requirements, which include such practices as scrutinizing data to figure out what’s causing teacher inequities and reaching out to districts, educators, and their unions to find fixes. States that fall short will be expected to revise their plans.
This isn’t the first time the federal government has tried to tackle the tricky issue of teacher distribution. The No Child Left Behind law called for states to ensure all teachers were highly qualified by the 2005-06 school year. (States got a one-year extension.) But many of those plans sat on the virtual shelf without an update for years.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Approves Teacher-Equity Plans for 16 States