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Arne Duncan Unveils 50-State Teacher-Equity Strategy

Barack-Obama-Arne-Duncan-teachers-white-house-600.jpgUPDATED

The U.S. Department of Education Monday detailed its long-awaited "50-state" strategy for putting some teeth into a requirement of the 12-year-old No Child Left Behind Act that has gone largely unenforced up until now: ensuring that poor and minority students get access to as many great teachers as their more advantaged peers. 

States will be required to submit new plans to address teacher distribution by April of 2015, or just a few months before the department likely will begin to consider states' requests to renew their waivers from the NCLB law. (Read a letter the department sent to state chiefs outlining the plan here.) 

This isn't the first time that the feds have asked states to outline their plans on teacher distribution, but the results so far haven't exactly been a stunning success. 

Under NCLB, which was signed into law in 2002, states were required to ensure that poor and minority students were not being taught by unqualified teachers at a higher rate than other students. But fewer than half of states have separate teacher-equity plans on file with the department. Most of those plans are at least several years old, and the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that advocates for poor and minority kids, found them to be seriously lacking in this 2006 report. 

Meanwhile, a national survey of teachers found that core classes in high-poverty schools are twice as likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers as similar classes at schools serving more advantaged students, according to the Education Trust.

But addressing that problem won't be easy. States have a limited authority and capacity to ensure that districts distribute teachers fairly, since decisions like hiring and transfers tend to be made at the local level. Plus, states are currently knee-deep in developing new teacher-evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account. 

"All students deserve excellent educators, and all educators deserve our full support," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters during a White House press briefing Monday. "To reach these goals, there are no magic bullets or quick fixes and the best ideas, quite frankly, won't come from any of us here in Washington. ... Our department won't require any particular approach." But, he added, some promising practices include giving strong teachers access to effective principals and colleagues, and paying them fairly, as well as giving teachers time to collaborate and learn from each other.

To highlight the initiative, Duncan and President Barack Obama had lunch with a group of teachers at the White House Monday. 

So will this new batch of plans actually bring about change? That remains to be seen. To help states move forward, the Obama administration plans to develop a $4.2 million new "technical assistance" network—called the Educator Equity Support Network—to help states develop their plans and put them in place. The network will come up with model plans to guide states' work, and give educators a space to swap information about how they have approached the teacher-equity problem. (It's worth noting that $4.2 million is a pretty small amount in federal budget terms. It's less money, for example, than the administration would allocate to just three individual foundering schools under the School Improvement Grant program, and this money would be spread through out the entire country.)

The administration is also planning to publish "Educator Equity" profiles in the fall, to help states get a sense of where their gaps are when it comes to equitable distribution of teachers. The profiles could include information comparing teacher experience levels, attendance rates, and qualifications at high and low poverty schools. 

And the department will share states' data files from the Civil Rights Data Collection, to help inform their analysis of where they currently stand when it comes to teacher distribution. (It's worth noting that much of the data in the CRDC analysis already come from districts within the states themselves.) 

But big questions loom, including just how—and whether—these state-equity plans will figure into waiver renewal. Will the Obama administration decide not to renew a state's waiver if it doesn't develop a sufficiently ambitious teacher-equity plan? 

Duncan didn't get into specifics on that question during the White House briefing Monday, saying only that the department would look at the equity plans as "a piece of many things we're considering." And at a separate press briefing at the Education Department on Monday he described the process as a collaboration with states. 

"This could be a very adversarial process between states and the federal government," he said, but that's not something the administration is looking for. Instead, the feds want states to design teacher equity plans that fit their unique needs. "This isn't about playing gotcha," he said.

Duncan declined to spell out a contigency plan for states that choose not to comply with the administration's request.

Tying state action on teacher equity to waiver renewal was on the table last year. In August of 2013, the Education Department said it planned to require states to look at where they are falling short on teacher equity in order to renew their NCLB waivers.

Then, a few months later, the Obama administration backed off that proposal in favor of a much more streamlined waiver "extension" process. The feds promised to take a more rigorous look at the teacher-equity issue through a 50-state strategy that would apply to all states, not just the 40-plus with waivers. The administration had initially hoped to unveil that plan in January, but didn't release anything until Monday.

It's also unclear whether the feds will expect states to consider whether disadvantaged kids have access to as many highly qualified teachers (those with proper certification and subject knowledge) or as many "effective" teachers (those that actually move the needle on student achievement.) The original NCLB law stressed "highly qualified" teachers. But the waivers have nudged states closer to effectiveness, although, as Duncan noted Monday, states are in different places when it comes to being able to measure a teachers' impact on student achievement. 

Political landscape: The equity proposal comes several months after civil rights organizations—and their congressional allies—turned up the pressure on the Obama administration to make teacher distribution a condition of waiver renewal.

Members of the three caucuses in Congress representing minority-group lawmakers: the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Caucus, sent a letter to Duncan back in February blasting the impact of the waivers on the poor and minority students the NCLB law was initially designed to help, and imploring the Obama administration to look closely at whether states are taking teacher-equity issues seriously before deciding whether to extend their waivers.

Who likes the plan? Even though details are still sketchy, the administration's initial proposal is getting good reviews from the field, including both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, even showed up at a press conference at the U.S. Department of Education to lend her support. 

So did Wade Henderson, president and CEO of Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. He said that states and districts must be given the resources to bolster equity, in areas beyond just teacher distribution. 

Also on hand: Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Minnich has made it clear in the past that while states can provide leadership when it comes to teacher equity, they don't have a lot of say over areas such as hiring and placement. Instead, he said Monday, states can provide clear data on the scope of the teacher distribution problem, spark discussion between district leaders, unions and educators, and bolster teacher preparation. CCSSO will be releasing recommendations on the state role in teacher equity soon, Minnich said. 

"Any federal efforts in this area must allow the states to lead the way," he added. 

And Deborah Veney Robinson, the vice president for government affairs at The Education Trust, which has been one of the loudest voices when it comes to teacher equity, said the organization is  "encouraged by today's announcement by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of his intention to focus new energy on the problem of unequal access to quality teachers."

Photo by Associated Press.

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