Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan announced that he plans to enforce an oft-overlooked provision of George W. Bush’s widely reviled No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Yes, that would be the same education mandate that has been slated for replacement since 2007.
Over the last few months, President Barack Obama — who appeared set up to leave office with virtually no education legacy whatsoever — has charged headlong into the issue of educational equity. This time, his administration has told states they have until April 2015 to come up with a plan for equitably distributing talented teachers among schools.
Implementation — even with a federal mandate to enact the sweeping change — will be tricky for Minnesota. As in most states, the most experienced teachers tend to end up teaching in districts’ wealthiest schools.
Until now, states have had little ability to influence teacher placement decisions, which are made at the local level. Union seniority rules are one reason.
Others include working conditions at impoverished schools that burn teachers out and shortages in a number of teacher specialties, such as math and science, and special education and English language learner (ELL) services.
Cassellius welcomes rule’s intent
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius welcomed the intent of the rule, which she said will be a particular challenge for the state’s small and rural districts to implement. Not only are they hardest hit by educator shortages, smaller staffs mean fewer teachers to move around.
Besides, she said, even if Minnesota had the ability to move the most effective teachers into the most challenged classrooms, “Well then who gets the bad ones?” Better, in her opinion, is to raise the quality of the teacher corps overall.
Starting next fall, teachers throughout the state will undergo regular evaluations. Cassellius said she believes the feedback generated by that process has the potential to help all grow.
“The goal is probably going to have something to do with linking teacher effectiveness to equity plans,” said Cassellius. “There’s so much local control. We don’t have the ability, especially in non-Title schools, to go in and tell them what to do.”
“Non-Title” schools are those that do not receive federal Title I assistance, money intended to offset the challenges of educating a highly impoverished student body. The U.S. Department of Education has more power to tie that funding to policy.
Especially in the run-up to this year’s midterm elections, the move isn’t without political risk. American Federation of Teachers President Randy Weingarten supports the plan, but last week the nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, issued a call for Duncan’s resignation. That move, however, originated with the union’s California affiliate, which has been rocked by a recent court decision declaring some of the state’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional. In a later statement, the union chief said the group supports the equity plan.
Arguably, the mandate hands states a tool they can use to push for changes in the way teachers are assigned to schools, traditionally one of the most difficult arenas. While there’s research to challenge the conventional wisdom that teachers on the job longer are more effective, historically school districts have lacked power to place talent where they believe it is needed most.
Follows other equity moves
It’s the third time in recent months that the Obama administration has addressed institutional racism in the nation’s schools. The announcement of the equity plan follows hot on the heels of a DOE directive that states and districts work to reduce racial disparities in discipline rates and the marquee initiative aimed at advocating for schools to radically improve the way they meet the needs of young African-American men.
The push announced Monday would require states to submit “comprehensive educator equity plans” to DOE outlining how they plan to put “effective” teachers in front of poor and minority kids. To aid in the effort, the department is creating a support network and compiling information on which states have promising efforts under way.
A number of equity-focused groups, including the data clearinghouse Education Trust and congressional caucuses representing African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians, pushed for the teacher equity plan.
Data shows students at high-poverty schools are twice as likely to have their most important classes taught by teachers lacking the proper certification.
A MinnPost analysis of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) teacher salary data published in March revealed that the lowest-paid teachers, those with the least experience and the fewest degrees, are clustered in the poorest, most segregated schools. The difference between the programs with the highest and lowest median salary was almost $31,000 in the 2012-2013 school year.
Bookending that problem, half of all teachers leave the field during their first three years on the job. The lack of support and stressful conditions often found in impoverished schools compound this.
Remedy sought in new contract
A new contract between MPS and its teachers seeks to remedy this both by giving the district greater flexibility in assigning teachers and by ensuring that the district supports conditions that makes it easier for educators to be effective in challenging situations.
On Monday, Duncan announced that states must collect and report data on the experience levels, attendance rates and quality of teachers at high- and low-poverty schools. It’s the latest in a series of policies Duncan has instituted by issuing rules, a tactic designed to advance the administration’s education policy despite Congress’s failure to rework NCLB.
The 2002 law — expired but still in place — required states to “ensure that poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers.” Aside from the one-time collection of states’ reports in 2006, the law has never been enforced.
A draft of guidelines for states seeking to renew their waivers from compliance with NCLB published last August suggested that states could be asked to show equitable distribution by October 2015. Ultimately the equity question was taken out of the waiver rules.
On the board of the Council of Chief State School Officers, Cassellius has known for some time that Duncan’s pronouncement was in the works. She was one of the state leaders who asked that it be decoupled from the waiver renewals, in part because she believes that the new teacher evaluation process will be the best tool in the long-term.
“Teacher evaluation isn’t just about rating teachers,” she said. “It’s about getting to know teachers better so you know what their strengths are.”