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What Happened to the Education Department’s Teacher-Equity Strategy?

By Alyson Klein — May 13, 2014 4 min read
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Way back in November, the U.S. Department of Education told states that it was working on a “50-state” strategy to tackle one of the trickiest areas of education policy: Ensuring that disadvantaged students have access to their fair share of highly-qualified and effective teachers.

The department was hoping to unveil the strategy in January. It’s now the middle of May, the school year is nearly over, and we haven’t seen it yet.

The department is aiming for mid-summer, said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the agency. The administration has to do a lot of outreach and communication with many different stakeholders, she said, to make sure they get this right. (U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in this Q & A that the strategy was “coming,” but didn’t specify a timeframe.)

But now that the department has reversed course on an important aspect of No Child Left Behind waiver implementation dealing with teacher quality by allowing some states to renew their waivers while they are still refining their educator-evaluation systems, some are wondering whether states—and the feds— have the logistical bandwidth to tackle this difficult policy area.

“Last week’s announcement suggests the department is receptive to state arguments on limited capacity,"said Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, who previously served in the department where he worked on NCLB waives. “If neither the department nor states are prepared to have the evaluation conversation now, it seems unlikely they would have the capacity to look at equity plans,” he added.

The “50-state strategy” was intended to put some muscle behind a provision already in the NCLB law, which called for states to make progress on teacher equity. (That essentially means that states are on the hook for ensuring students in poverty don’t get stuck with a bunch of teachers who aren’t effective or highly-qualified. Disadvantaged and minority students need to be given access to just as many effective, qualified teachers as their peers, federal law says.) Even though that goal has been part of federal law for more than a decade, it’s never really been enforced, in part because it’s, well, very difficult to do. (More on just why here.)

Initially, in fact, the department planned to require states to show that they are making progress on the equitable distribution of teachers in order to get their waivers from the NCLB law renewed for an additional year. That would have given the department an enforcement mechanism to ensure that all waiver states (that’s now 42 states and the District of Columbia) complied with the law.

But then, in November, the administration backed off. The feds decided, instead, that they would streamline the process for waiver renewal, and teacher-equity plans would no longer be required.

At the same time, however, the administration let everyone know they weren’t dropping the issue. The department said it planned to come up with regulations that would apply to every state, whether it had a waiver or not.

Department officials pointed to three different potential leverage points for making the strategy a reality, including using the power of the department’s office for civil rights, or OCR, asking states to come up with new teacher-equity plans, or linking teacher equity to future NCLB waiver renewals. Since then, however, the department hasn’t released new details publicly, even though some have asked.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., who oversee the House committee and subcommittees that deal with K-12 policy, sent a letter to Sec. Duncan in February expressing skepticism about the proposal. The lawmakers asked for specifics, including what format the plan would come in, and what the process for rolling it out would be. Kline and Rokita haven’t received a written answer. But department officials briefed committee staff on the program, saying they were still hammering out details and that they would return again with more information.

Advocates who support the strategy are hungry for specifics, too. And they’re asking Congress to ensure the department follows through on its plan.

In its budget request, the administration proposed a new, $300 million version of the Race to the Top franchise aimed at bolstering educational equity, including when it comes to teacher distribution. But even strong supporters of the new equity program don’t see it as a replacement for the 50-state strategy. The Education Trust, an advocacy group that has been working on equitable distribution of teachers for years, sent a letter to lawmakers in Congress who control spending. The organization said, essentially that they support the new Race to the Top program—as long as the new money is coupled with a proposal that would apply to all states and districts, whether they got the grants or not.

“Funding should be tied to a requirement that the Department of Education finalize its already announced 50-state strategy on teacher equity, which would set forth minimum requirements for all states,” the Education Trust wrote. (Read the Ed Trust’s entire letter here.)