Obama's new plan to get better teachers in poor schools

The US Department of Education launched a new initiative to ensure that poor and minority students have higher quality teachers.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks about education on Monday during the daily briefing at the White House. The Education Department released a new plan to help states ensure qualified teachers for poor and minority students.

More equitable teacher distribution – making sure that poor and minority students have teachers that are as qualified as those teaching their wealthier peers – has long been an outcome that federal education officials have held out as a goal.

On Monday, the US Department of Education released its latest strategy to ensure some movement, the Excellent Educators for All Initiative. The plan calls for states to submit new, comprehensive plans for improving equity and getting great teachers into classrooms with disadvantaged students, and creates several support structures to help states follow through.

“All children are entitled to a high-quality education regardless of their race, ZIP code, or family income,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “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. We have to do better.”

Ensuring that poor and minority students aren’t taught by less-qualified teachers has actually been a federal requirement for states since 2002, when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law, but few states have taken much action.

The last time the Department of Education asked states to create a plan to improve teacher equity was in 2006, and with no real accountability tied to the request, not much came of it, says Deborah Veney Robinson, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust in Washington, which is dedicated to closing achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color.

A 2010 Education Trust survey of teachers found that core classes in high poverty schools were twice as likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers as classes in low-poverty schools. And an analysis in the Los Angeles Unified School District showed that Latino and African-American students were two to three times more likely to have low-performing teachers than their white and Asian peers.

“We’re talking about millions of low-income student and students of color who are not getting their share of high performing teachers,” says Ms. Robinson, noting that she believes this is one of the most important – and unaddressed – issues in education today.

“It’s long overdue that this issue is being addressed again, but I think the proof is going to be in whether or not states actually do anything meaningfuI," she added. "I remain hopeful that with some accountability measures to put some teeth on this, we can actually begin to move the needle.”

In the plan Secretary Duncan announced, states will need to submit new “educator equity” plans by next April. The Education Department will also launch a $4.2 million technical assistance network to support states in developing those plans and begin publishing educator equity profiles in the fall to help states identify gaps, access data, and see promising practices.

At a press conference, Duncan refused to say whether tying states’ NCLB waivers to their teacher equity plan – the accountability measure many advocates, including Robinson, say may be necessary to have an impact – is an option he will pursue.

He said that the department won’t require that states pursue any one approach to improve equity but cited certain practices, such as improving pay and improving time for teacher collaboration, that can help.

Robinson also says there’s no silver bullet for the issue, but notes that Delaware conducted a rigorous analysis, took a serious look at the problem of teacher retention, and then created the Delaware Talent Cooperative, which works to attract and retain strong teachers in high-needs schools through improved compensation, recognition, professional development, and leadership opportunities.

North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg district has had similar success with its Strategic Staffing Initiative, which has worked to get the most effective teachers and principals into the highest poverty schools. And Florida took steps to prohibit districts from assigning poor performing or out-of-field teachers to the lowest performing schools.

Many educational equity advocates greeted Duncan’s announcement with cautious support, and the heads of the two biggest teachers unions also issued support for the initiative and its goals, while emphasizing that it’s just one step toward achieving a real solution.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, called attention to what he calls a loophole in current federal law that allows teachers still in training to be labeled “highly qualified.”

“We must create accountability for the whole system that drives greater equity in every school, and an important first step is that every new teacher be profession-ready before ever stepping foot into a classroom and becoming the teacher of record for students,” Van Roekel said in a statement.

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