Washington Watch

The Classroom Teacher, summer 2014

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would focus on improving education equity by increasing preschool opportunities, implementing a common set of K-12 academic standards, and reducing barriers to higher education. Obama vowed to make changes through executive actions if Congress failed to enact legislation.

In this session of Congress, reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education School Act (ESEA), which was last updated under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has indeed stalled, and it is highly unlikely that legislation will move forward by the end of the year.

So in early July, Obama delivered on his promise of executive action by announcing an initiative that would require states to develop plans to ensure that poor and minority students have equal access to effective teachers.

This initiative, called “Excellent Educators for All,” seeks to bring states into compliance with a teacher equity mandate in the NCLB, a provision that has never been consistently enforced. (In 2006, the Bush administration required states to submit plans detailing how they would improve teacher distribution. Few submitted plans, and there has been no follow-up since.)

Under this new initiative, states must submit a new plan, due April 2015, that results from discussions with stakeholders (principals, teachers and parents) and an analysis of data. In the initial announcement, the U.S. Department of Education did not specify a particular data set that states must use for this analysis.

What’s “effective”?

Complicating the process of equitable teacher distribution is the reality that teacher hiring and transfer decisions are made at the local level, leaving states without much authority. Another issue with this initiative is the definition of an “effective” teacher.

The NCLB requires states to “ensure that poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.” This is the bar that states must address in their new plans.

Districts will need an accurate method to assess and identify teachers along the “effective” continuum, and states are already wrestling with the validity of new teacher evaluation systems designed to measure effectiveness. (See "A closer look at the proposed new teacher evaluation system.")

Competing mandates

Last summer, the USDE first attempted to put into place new NCLB waiver requirements that say states must use data from teacher evaluation systems to ensure that ineffective teachers are not instructing low-income and minority students at higher rates than other students. The Department quickly pulled back after many groups expressed frustration with competing mandates that were increasingly difficult to implement and not evidence-based.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested heavily in the Common Core State Standards, recently reversed course from its support of USDE-backed initiatives that base teacher evaluations on new tests aligned with the Common Core standards. The foundation called for a two-year moratorium on linking Common Core assessments to teacher evaluations and student achievement. This would allow teachers and schools to have a stronger voice in how the tests affect evaluations.

The USDE’s continued response is to provide states with more time to implement teacher evaluation systems,as long as they work in good faith toward that goal. Some Texas stakeholders, including TCTA, are advocating that Texas pursue such an extension.

Next steps

The USDE has promised state education agencies guidance this fall to support them in their teacher equity plan development and implementation. The guidance could also stipulate how states are to evaluate teachers, although members of Congress have recently warned the Department about using guidance documents in lieu of legislation.

While recognizing that there is not one solution that fits all, the USDE says it wants evidence that states are committed to resolving disparities and implementing practices to recruit, develop and retain great educators.

It’s not yet clear, though, exactly how the USDE will hold states accountable. At present U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has not confirmed that teacher equity plans will be tied to existing conditional waivers from NCLB, but the Department can mandate that.

This article was provided by TCTA’s Washington, D.C. lobby firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, a federal independent lobbying company.