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Feds push for equal access to quality teachers
By Stephanie Simon
More than a decade ago, Congress ordered states to figure out a way to distribute qualified teachers fairly, so low-income and minority children weren’t so often stuck with inexperienced and unlicensed educators.
As it turns out, they’ve done a lousy job.
New data out from the Education Department find sizable — and in some states, huge — disparities in children’s access to fully qualified and experienced teachers.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, more than 20 percent of teachers are unlicensed in the schools with the largest concentration of minority students. In largely white schools, just 0.2 percent of teachers lack a license, the data show.
Or consider Louisiana: Nearly 20 percent of classes in the most impoverished schools are taught by teachers who don’t meet the federal definition of “highly qualified” — which generally means they lack a bachelor’s degree, are unlicensed or don’t have a strong academic background in the subject they’re teaching. In the wealthier schools, fewer than 8 percent of classes are led by a teacher who’s not highly qualified.
In New York, students in high-poverty schools are nearly three times more likely to have a rookie teacher and 22 times more likely to have an unlicensed teacher than their peers in more affluent schools.
“The inequitable distribution of teachers teaching low-income students is staggering, sobering and getting worse,” said Arnold Fege, president of Public Advocacy for Kids, an education policy group.
President Barack Obama has sought to push the issue; earlier this year, he proposed $300 million in competitive grants to spur states to develop new strategies for getting high-quality teachers in front of needy kids.
But Congress scrapped the program in the recent budget agreement. And Republicans have warned that they’ll fight any “heavy-handed approach to federal enforcement” that subverts local autonomy.
The issue is sure to spark debate when Congress takes up reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. That law, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2001, set out the first requirements for equitable distribution of teachers.
The inequities laid bare in the state profiles could also fuel more lawsuits akin to the landmark Vergara case in California, which overturned the state’s teacher tenure law.
In that case, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that tenure and related job protections shielded grossly incompetent educators — who too often ended up assigned to teach the neediest students in the most impoverished schools.
Being continually saddled with weak teachers deprived students from low-income families of their constitutional right to an equal education, the judge ruled. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” Treu wrote.
Several families have filed a lawsuit making similar claims in New York, and others may well follow, especially in states where the federal data show stark inequities, analysts said.
“Post-Vergara, states ought to be more aware that they can be challenged in court using some of these fact patterns,” said Tim Daly, president of TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), a nonprofit focused on ensuring an equitable distribution of teachers.
But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she hoped states and the federal government would use the data “as a tool to inform and build, not as a hammer to sanction.” In addition to focusing on teacher qualifications, she said, policymakers must ensure that minority students and students from low-income families have access to other vital resources, including a rich curriculum, small class sizes and up-to-date technology.
Other analysts noted that the statistics about teacher experience and certification say nothing about effectiveness, so it’s hard to draw conclusions about whether poor and minority kids are truly receiving an inferior classroom experience.
“These profiles are a conversation starter, at best,” said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners.
The data in the new Educator Equity Profiles come from the 2011-12 school year. States are supposed to use them to draw up new strategies for distributing teachers fairly; those plans are due to the Education Department by June 1. The department has created an Equitable Access Support Network to help states with the process.
This won’t be the first time state officials think through these issues: They drafted similar plans in 2006, under President George W. Bush.
Some analysts say they doubt states will be able to move the needle, no matter how creative they are in their strategies. A state can’t force good teachers to move to high-needs schools. And the factors that influence teachers’ decisions — such as salary, support and working conditions — are made locally, not at the state level.
The federal government’s influence is also limited.
The Education Department hopes to use public pressure to prod states to take action: It plans to publish updated state equity profiles every two years. But it doesn’t have much other leverage.
And analysts said it’s clear that existing tools have proved inadequate. The federal government distributes supplemental Title I funding to disadvantaged schools every year. Some of that funding could, in theory, be spent boosting salaries to attract and retain top teachers. Yet in nearly every state, teachers of minority students and students from low-income families earn significantly less than teachers in wealthier schools, even after adjusting for the local cost of living.
“In state after state, the reports confirm that despite decades of federal oversight and investment, we are nowhere close to our stated goal of equal opportunity for all students,” Daly said. “On every indicator, a student from a low-income or minority background is more likely to get the short end of the stick.”
A few jurisdictions have managed to buck that trend for at least some metrics.
In the District of Columbia, students in the highest-poverty schools are actually more likely than their peers to have highly qualified teachers. They’re also more likely to have stability in the classroom: The absentee rate for teachers in D.C.’s poorest schools is far lower than it is in more affluent schools.
In Massachusetts, high-poverty and high-minority students are slightly more likely than their peers to have properly certified teachers.
And in Illinois, teachers in schools with the highest minority populations earn more, on average, than teachers in largely white schools.
The California data show inequities on most metrics, but the gaps aren’t as big as in other states. And some districts have made strong progress toward distributing teachers fairly.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, officials hold special recruiting events to give principals of low-income schools first choice of teacher applicants. The district also tries to lower the turnover rate at disadvantaged schools by pairing teachers with mentors who focus on supporting them through the emotional highs and lows of the first year in a classroom.
The federal data suggest the efforts are helping: In LAUSD, fewer than 1 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools are unlicensed. Only 9 percent of classes in those schools lack highly qualified instructors. By contrast, in Fresno’s most disadvantaged schools, 15 percent of teachers are unlicensed and 19 percent of classes lack highly-qualified instructors.
LAUSD officials are mindful that they must constantly work on inequity issues, said Deb Ignagni, deputy chief human resources officer for LAUSD. For instance, she says the district struggles to find qualified special education teachers, especially those who can work with students with severe disabilities. It’s also tough to fill vacancies for chemistry and physics teachers, she said. Since needy schools tend to have the most teacher turnover, they may end up having to assign those classes to teachers who aren’t fully qualified.
“We have to stay on top of it,” Ignagni said. While she said the district is proud of its accomplishments, she added, “it’s something that could go the other way very quickly.”
Other districts face similar challenges. Teacher training programs tend to produce an oversupply of elementary school teachers and a shortage of high school math and science teachers, making it difficult to even out the distribution of veteran and highly qualified educators.
“Maybe achieving parity between schools and districts over time is an impossible policy goal, given all the factors that contribute to these inequities,” Hyslop said.
But, she said, it’s worth striving for that goal, though that will require collecting far more detailed data than the federal government has on hand. “There was clearly a missed opportunity by both states and the department” to publish such data in the years since No Child Left Behind first mandated an equitable distribution of teachers, she said.
One of the most curious statistics in the Educator Equity Profiles is the teacher absentee rate, which varies tremendously between states and among districts in a given state, leading some analysts to question the reliability of the data.
In the Gadsden Independent School District in New Mexico, an astounding 82 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools are absent more than 10 days a year. Yet 40 miles north in Las Cruces, N.M., less than 1 percent of teachers in poor schools take that much time off.
Some entire states have sky-high absentee rates. In Rhode Island, 55 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools and 36 percent in low-poverty schools are absent more than 10 days in the school year.
“We’re certainly concerned,” said Kimberly Bright, chief of staff at the Rhode Island Department of Education. “We want to make sure our students have consistent teachers in the classroom. We’ll take a deep dive into the data and work with our districts to see how we can support turning those numbers around.” She said the state had no reason to question the accuracy of the data.
Officials in other states, including Pennsylvania and Louisiana, declined to comment about their profiles.
Some states have disputed the accuracy of the federal data. Officials in Vermont said they would cross-check the new profile against local sources “which are considered more reliable.” But the Education Department official defended the data, noting that they comes directly from local districts.
“It is possible that what may seem inaccurate could also just be unfamiliar,” the official said.
More detailed federal data may be on the way.
A few years ago, Congress ordered the Education Department to analyze how many students of color and special education students are being taught by teachers who are still in training programs. Those teachers — including members of Teach for America — count as “highly qualified” as long as they’re making progress in their program.
But civil rights advocates worry that teachers-in-training lack the experience and education to effectively serve disadvantaged students.
Congress asked for the report by the end of 2013 but the Education Department missed that deadline. A department official said the report is still “under development.”
That data, when they finally come, will be crucial to filling out the equity picture for both policymakers and parents, said Kenneth Zeichner, a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington.
“The issue,” he said, “is giving parents full information about who’s teaching their children.”