The Obama administration is issuing new demands to states in the hopes of narrowing gaps in teacher quality between the richest and poorest schools.
“Despite the excellent work and deep commitment of our nation’s teachers and principals, systemic inequities exist that shortchange students in high-poverty, high-minority schools across our country,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday morning.
The push for teacher equity, dubbed “Excellent Educators for All,” is rooted in a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was passed over a decade ago under President George W. Bush. The provision requires that states ensure poor students and ethnic minorities are not taught by “inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field” teachers at higher rates than other schoolchildren.
Until Monday, however, the Department of Education had been lax in enforcing the requirement.
The Department of Education’s new mandate requires states to submit a plan by April 2015 detailing how they will address the issue of teacher equity for their poor and minority students. The quality of those plans will help determine whether states continue to receive renewals to federal waivers of No Child Left Behind requirements.
While speaking to reporters, Duncan said that the administration’s demands still left significant leeway for the states.
“There are no magic bullets or quick fixes, and the best ideas, quite frankly, won’t come from any of us here in Washington,” Duncan said. “Our department won’t require any particular approach.”
Rather, the focus is on compelling states to come up with plans and make an effort to implement them.
The administration will also spend $4 million to establish an “Educator Equity Support Network,” whose stated purpose will be to create model plans for teach equity and then help states implement them.
Education Trust, a group that works to close the educational achievement gap, lauded the administration’s move.
“For too long, our tendency to assign the strongest teachers disproportionately to our most advantaged students has compromised the futures of millions of low-income students and students of color,” the group said in a statement.
According to a survey conducted by the group four years ago, schools in low-income areas are significantly more likely to have teachers who are compelled to teach classes outside their area of expertise. Their teachers also have fewer years of experience, on average.
Causes of this imbalance include higher turnover at schools in low-income areas, as well as jobs at higher-income schools being more sought-after by teachers.
The National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union, praised the Obama administration’s move, though it argued that current federal law includes a loophole allowing trainee teachers to be classified as “highly qualified.” Closing that loophole would make President Barack Obama’s efforts more effective, the NEA said.
Conservative groups are less impressed by Obama’s new effort, though.
“This is a pretty typical idea that liberals would want to support,” Michael Brickman, national policy director at the Fordham Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It’s well-intentioned and you can’t question where they’re coming from. But the idea that you’re going to start shuffling teachers around based on a Washington plan is ludicrous.”
There is no unified standard of what constitutes a “qualified teacher” among all the states, Brickman said, and some even defer to local school districts on the matter. That, plus the natural difficulties of coordinating thousands of communities with different situations and priorities, makes the Obama administration’s plan “not workable,” he said.
Brickman told TheDCNF that a better way to equalize teacher quality would be for Obama to promote greater school choice.
“Different teachers and different school environments work well for some and not for others,” he said. Letting parents decide which teachers are most “qualified” to teach their students would also be easier to implement than a Washington-based solution, he said.
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