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Minnesota's new teacher equity plan: 'It needs to be a living thing'

How do you get the best teachers in front of the students who need them most?

Let’s say you set out to figure out how to crack the decades-old juggernaut that concentrates inexperienced and ineffective teachers in schools serving impoverished children of color.

But wait — let’s say you can’t use Minnesota’s newly required teacher evaluations to identify the best educators. Or ensure that they aren’t laid off when budgets get cut.

And then let’s say you don’t actually have any influence — at least at the moment — over how teachers are placed in schools. In fact, you don’t even have any incentives to offer volunteers.

And just for fun: Suppose you also can’t fall back on major changes in how people are recruited into teaching — a profession which in Minnesota is more than 96 percent white.

Can you come up with a meaningful plan?

Sixteen states last week learned the U.S. Department of Education had signed off on their proposals for ensuring that all children, regardless of ZIP code, have equitable access to quality teachers. You’d never know Minnesota was among them unless you read the education press.

A holdover from the NCLB era

The plans are a holdover from the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a 14-year-old law that Congress, following more than a decade of gridlock, is currently attempting to rewrite. Because they must satisfy NCLB’s dictates, the plans U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last year asked all 50 states to submit are as much a regulatory exercise as anything.

Minnesota's 71-page plan reflects all of the aforementioned constraints, but if the opinions gathered by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) during its creation are used as conversation-starters, they could ignite a crucial dialogue on equity, say the education-sector leaders who weighed in on the process.

“This is the state’s plan,” says Tracine Asberry, executive director of St. Paul Youth Services and a member of the Minneapolis School Board. “They know the true intention of the plan. They know the questions and concerns that were raised. For the sake of our students of color, they need to make sure those things are carried out to the extent possible.”

The plan commits the state to helping to convene an equity working group to continue the conversation. It has yet to be decided whether MDE will spearhead the task force or hand it off to a policy organization.

Engagement required

Daria Hall

The Washington, D.C.-based policy group Education Trust has just begun reviewing the plans approved so far. Director of K-12 Policy Development Daria Hall agrees that discussion needs to continue.

“If the plan is going to be effective, it needs to be a living thing,” she says. “Ongoing stakeholder engagement is something the U.S. DOE is requiring of states.”

Hall was quick to praise Minnesota’s plan for committing the state to measurable goals. The state’s analysis of data concerning school demographics is thoughtful and the plan attempts to link root causes of inequities to strategies.

Hall is skeptical, however, that concentrating on improving teachers everywhere is a workable model: “Are the strategies the state is talking about really addressing equity or is it an overall improvement, ‘floats all boats’ approach, which has been proven time and time again not to create improvement for children of color and disadvantaged children.”

According to federal data, black and American Indian students are four times as likely as their white peers to attend schools where more than one-fifth of teachers are in their first year on the job. Latinos are three times more likely.

Because research confirms teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school factor in student success, NCLB required states to develop plans for giving impoverished students “equitable access” to highly qualified teachers.

Definition of 'highly qualified'

While some districts evaluated teachers in 2001 when the law was passed, most did not. So NCLB defined a “highly qualified” teacher as one who had experience, an appropriate license and was teaching in his or her content area.

Quality-blind layoff laws like the one on Minnesota’s books have enabled experienced teachers to bid into wealthier schools, leaving challenged programs scrambling to cope with brand-new teachers and turnover. Attempts to change this here met with resistance from MDE and, in 2012, a veto from Gov. Mark Dayton.

And while Minnesota last year for the first time required districts to evaluate all teachers and principals, curiously the statute does not require data on teacher effectiveness to be reported to the state, according to MDE officials.

Finally, it’s districts that negotiate teacher placement in their contracts with teachers, they add. Which MDE interprets as making the actual processes a local responsibility — something critics dispute.

Strategies for improving quality

Instead of contemplating ways to induce effective teachers to work in challenged schools, the plan outlines a number of strategies for improving the overall quality of teaching in the state, as well as beginning to talk about institutional racism.

There is, for instance, discussion of streamlining teacher licensure and strengthening support for the newest teachers. And MDE’s Regional Centers of Excellence, which were established to provide support to small and far-flung districts, will be tapped for professional development that will include culturally responsive teaching methods.

The plan stops short of specifically committing to making it easier for teachers trained in other states — where more educators of color are prepared — to secure Minnesota licenses. Nearly five years after the first of two laws directing the Board of Teaching to ease up on reciprocity, the credentialing agency has predicted it will not meet the Legislature’s latest deadline.

Nor is the re-instatement of a “portfolio” licensure process the board several years ago petitioned lawmakers to formalize in statute but then unilaterally discontinued.

Federal guidelines encouraged states to go ahead and satisfy NCLB’s very basic requirements and then to push further and consider teacher quality as well as placement policies. In order to compell states to go further, Duncan would have had to change regulations--a fraught process that would have caused further delays.  

MinnPost contacted numerous groups and individuals listed as stakeholders in the plan. Many said they were unable to make the meetings, which were convened very close together and at the height of the legislative session, when many policy advocates are chained to the Capitol. Rosters of those in attendance back this up.

The need to look for root causes

Those who attended more than one said conversations ranged far beyond NCLB parameters, with a repeated theme being the need to examine the root causes of the inequities in the current system. Many discussions involved strategies for diversifying the teacher corps.

Anthony Hernandez

Teacher Anthony Hernandez was one of those who chafed at the work plan. A plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to resolve the aforementioned out-of-state licensure issue, he represented the recently closed Charter School Partners on the stakeholder panel.

“They are approaching a hugely important topic, teacher equity, with an incredibly narrow set of metrics,” he says. “Teachers in classrooms who value equity know that to achieve a system where every child has access to the highest quality teachers is going to require a much bigger disruption in the way things are done.”

A longtime teacher educator who serves on the board of MinnCAN, Keith Brooks found the meetings a good first step and agreed with Asberry: The proof will be in the boldness of the ongoing discussion.

“The U.S. Constitution is a wonderfully written document that was signed by many slave owners,” says Brooks. “The equity plan can be more than a document if institutions speak and work with each other. Also, it should be an education equity plan instead of teacher equity plan, because teachers are not the only ones who need support or should shoulder the weight of the responsibility in isolation.

“Since Education Minnesota is a major influencing organization, I hope they will be at the table and engaged as a partner in this work,” Brooks continues. “People have to take courage at addressing the root causes and how we got into this position, instead of overemphasizing current symptoms and results of historical consistent permeating inequities. Minnesota doesn’t have one of the widest racial disparities in education, employment, home ownership, health and law enforcement/policing without cause or by accident.”

“We see this as a continuous process,” says MDE Assistant Commissioner Hue Nguyen. “We were waiting for the feds to approve the plan. Now I see us reaching back out to stakeholder groups and saying how do we go forward.”

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Comments (5)

How are you defining ineffective

this article starts out with ".....decades-old juggernaut that concentrates inexperienced and ineffective teachers in schools serving impoverished children of color".

Too often the definition of an "ineffective" teacher is a reflection of how students in the classroom perform unadjusted for the many socioeconomic factors that can be as big if not a bigger influence on their achievement. Labeling these early career teachers ineffective is a disservice to them and it may drive corrective actions in the wrong direction.

Teacher Equity Plan

I agree with Keith Brooks' statement "...it should be an education equity plan instead of teacher equity plan, because teachers are not the only ones who need support or should shoulder the weight of the responsibility in isolation."

I keep hearing people blame teachers for shortcomings in the school system. Last month there was a ridiculous article on the front page of the Strib about the cost of school supplies (which is not news). The article was written in such a way as to blame the teachers for requesting supplies. A more interesting article would have asked who should be paying for the school supplies.

Teaching is a hard job. I keep wondering when we will start talking about decreasing class size by...let's say half, to start. :-)

Keep the focus

Yes, teaching is an incredibly demanding (and rewarding) profession, and yes, many children face a myriad of challenges to learning.......all that's a given and should be recognized.

But so, too, is the fact that teachers are the most important in-school factor for a student's ability to succeed.

The challenge is finding new ways to make sure all kids, including students of color and low-income students, have full/equal access to effective teachers. As mentioned in Beth's article, for too many students the teacher they have is determined by processes more related to seniority than who's most effective.

If we focus on matching student needs with teacher strengths, we'll have a different system, but one that can better serve both students and teachers.

Teacher equity / student equity

Michael Hess and Elisa Wright make good points. My experience over 30 years in another state was that Hess’s 2nd paragraph is, if anything, an understatement. I worked a few miracles in my 30 years, but the expectation that every teacher work a miracle every time, with every student who needs one is, to be polite, unrealistic, especially given current student loads for most teachers in most urban schools. Ms. Wright speaks to that, as have I. My granddaughter’s kindergarten class, in a Minneapolis school that’s NOT among the district’s worst, had 30 5-year-olds, with a teacher aide some of the time, and an additional volunteer aide some of the time. No one who’s spent any appreciable time around small children would think trying to teach 30 of them – simultaneously, and with appropriate adjustments for differences in learning style, skill sets, family backgrounds, etc. – is an easy job. Sadly, most of the influential critics of urban schools have never had to do that job.

“…Finally, it’s districts that negotiate teacher placement in their contracts with teachers, they add. Which MDE interprets as making the actual processes a local responsibility — something critics dispute…” This is one of those Minnesota oddities that continues to puzzle me. Throughout my own career, actual teacher placement and classroom/subject assignments could not have been more local. They were made by administrators and department chairs at individual schools. Do the “critics” actually want someone in St. Paul deciding – without having to personally deal with the consequences of a bad call – which teachers should go in which classrooms?

“…According to federal data, black and American Indian students are four times as likely as their white peers to attend schools where more than one-fifth of teachers are in their first year on the job. Latinos are three times more likely.

Because research confirms teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school factor in student success, NCLB required states to develop plans for giving impoverished students “equitable access” to highly qualified teachers…” I will argue, and continue to argue, that teacher effectiveness cannot be routinely quantified. It’s largely a function of personality, coupled with appropriate intellectual background and performance. Some skills can be – and should be – taught in teacher-preparation programs, but it’s essentially a job that requires interpersonal skills of the sort that college coursework hasn’t been able to transfer dependably to students. The metrics usually used to determine if someone is a “quality” teacher are certainly better than dragging random people in off the street, but they no more equate to teacher effectiveness than graduation from college with a degree in geology guarantees that you’ll be able to find oil – or water – by your employer’s arbitrary deadline.

“…The plan stops short of specifically committing to making it easier for teachers trained in other states — where more educators of color are prepared — to secure Minnesota licenses. Nearly five years after the first of two laws directing the Board of Teaching to ease up on reciprocity, the credentialing agency has predicted it will not meet the Legislature’s latest deadline…” This is an ongoing issue that ought to have the Governor’s attention, as well as that of the legislature, and that needs to be corrected… yesterday. For a state that takes such pride in an educated workforce, it’s more than a little surprising to see the obstinance with which the apparently-dysfunctional Board of Teaching approaches this issue. It ought to be EASY for any teacher certified in another state to be certified in Minnesota – and to do so without subsidizing the bottom line of local college and university teacher-preparation programs and personnel. It’s a measure of someone’s influence, somewhere, that this continues to NOT be the case, year after year after year.

Anthony Hernandez: “…’Teachers in classrooms who value equity know that to achieve a system where every child has access to the highest quality teachers is going to require a much bigger disruption in the way things are done.’” I’m going to suggest further (brief) reading for those who’ve gotten this far:

http://www.planetizen.com/node/81286/exclusionary-schooling-forces-widen...

The disruption I personally think necessary goes beyond what’s normally part of the conversation on this issue, and would require action from the Met Council, a whole bunch of local school districts and the communities that support them, and probably the Governor and legislature – with, I would guess, none of those parties being especially enthused about taking part in the necessary changes. For that reason alone, I think it unlikely to take place, but the fact that it's unlikely doesn't mean that it shouldn't happen.

Teachers & Education Equity for ALL Students

We keep circulating around some of the SAME issues in regards to education equity (some obvious, some perhaps, NOT so obvious). I am not a teacher but, did teach in an after-school program (hired as a writer w/no teacher training w/goal to improve students' reading & writing skills--& make it fun!) that INCREASED my already existing RESPECT for what teachers do and the CHALLENGES they face doing it. (My situation was paradise compared to what daily classroom teachers face: I had 12 to 15 students for 3 hours a day four days a week. LACKED resources & so I bought art & writing supplies but, had FREEDOM OF CURRICULUM that classroom teachers have less & less of). Here's a few thoughts:
1.On hiring more teachers of color: do we know WHY fewer teachers of color apply for TC schools (if fewer in fact do)? At the very least, making TEACHER CERTIFICATION FROM OTHER STATES ACCEPTABLE for MN schools should be passed NOW. That's the only concrete reason the article gave for why fewer teachers of color are being hired. This should NOT be that hard to do NOW.
2.CLASS SIZE comes up over & over. The letter-writer who alluded to kindergarten class of THIRTY 5-year-olds comes to mind. What are the class-sizes for all the other grades? Are the DIFFERENCES in class-size depending on socio-economics (that is, do N.Mpls schools have HIGHER class-sizes than SE Mpls schools?) Chidlren & Youth with HIGHER NEEDS due to poverty & other issues NEED SMALLER CLASS SIZES even MORE than higher-income students do. WHY the hell ahven't we addressed this yet???
3.BRING BACK EDUCATION AIDES---especially to the most "challenged"schools. HIRE MORE SOCIAL WORKERS & COUNSELORS to address the OUT OF SCHOOL challenges that students bring with them into the classroom. So-called "reformers" continue to claim that hunger, homelessness, exposure to violence (both domestic violence & street violence), abuse, mental illness of parent or child, etc "is no excuse for poor academic performance". What unmitigated BS. I suggest these "reformers" imagine what it's like for an elementary school child who was kept awake while their mother was beat up the night before or having to escape a batterer---and consider who well they'd do on a test or other school work in such a situation of anxiety, exhaustion & PTSD. Students facing these challenges NEED MORE ADULTS in their lives!
4.Finally, STOP making this a students VS. teachers issue. The constant TEACHER-bashing, ATTACKS on teachers' unions & tenure, LOADING more & more on teachers with LESS & LESS resources is only COMPOUNDING the challenges of creating equity. IS ANYONE LOOKING AT ADMINISTRATORS (that is, from school PRINCIPALS to the HIGHEST ADMINISTRATORS and questioning how THEY are doing their job? A sense of a "state of siege" from administrators, relentless (& often unfair) BLAMING of teachers & the feeling that "you're TOTALLY on your own" if you're a teacher also accounts for teachers leaving the field.
It's over due for "reformers" to have to SPEND A WEEK IN A CLASSROOM themselves.