Five First Steps for States Tackling Inequitable Access

Angela Minnici

As many new governors and state school officers prepare to take the helm in 2015, state leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to lay out a bold vision for ensuring that all students – regardless of zip code and background – have equitable access to great teachers and leaders. Today, the Department of Education released Frequently Asked Questions about requirements states must follow to submit formal plans for solving this enduring problem. This is not the first time states have been asked to address “equitable distribution,” but research shows that equity gaps still persist. This time, we need to produce better results.

Tackling the persistent problem of inequitable access won’t be easy. But, even with inevitable road blocks, the time is right for a renewed shared commitment. Given the challenges that education leaders will face in this process, we offer five first steps for states to take when developing their State Educator Equity Plans.

  1. Identify and tackle the root causes behind equity gaps. Why are students from low-income families and students of color more likely than their peers to attend schools where the quality of instruction is poor and resources are inadequate? Without identifying the root causes, applying the right strategies and finding long-term solutions is far harder. Key questions for states: “Where are our biggest equity gaps” – and, more important – “Why are these inequities occurring?” Equity plans should attempt to answer these questions using data and stakeholder input.
  2. Ensure that plans support a comprehensive approach to educator talent development. The standard piecemeal approach to improving educator quality yields lackluster results, so state plans should address the whole career continuum-- from how we recruit teachers and school leaders to how we prepare them, and then develop, support, and retain them. Plans should also address all educators at every stage of their career, from novice to expert. That way, state plans can serve as the hub of a larger strategic vision for improving the educator workforce.

    For example, teaching and leading low-performing students is a huge undertaking, and one that first-year educators shouldn’t be responsible for without intense support. Aspiring principals and teachers need incentives and support to work and spend years in low-performing schools, and short “tours of duty” will not be enough to make a difference. There is no silver bullet or single strategy for solving inequitable access.
  3. Make policies and approaches to tackling inequitable access coherent. Currently, states have many policies, initiatives, and practices for improving educator quality. But even the best of intentions aren’t enough. State plans must be aligned with current policies and show that states’ initiatives are interdependent and ultimately support teaching and learning standards.
  4. Collect and analyze high-quality data. Equity plans need to address how states will support both the collection and use of data. High-quality data can reveal the nuances and extent of the problem and help education leaders identify effective strategies and monitor progress.

    Data on a variety of measures, including how teachers and principals are faring in their positions, should be collected and continuously analyzed. Right now, states don’t have all the data they need, and the quality of some data is suspect. For example, we know principals are key in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, but many states don’t collect data on principal quality and turnover. Rather than allow data shortages to stall action, states should put in motion plans to collect and strengthen the data they need to answer the most important questions about why equity gaps exist and how to rectify them.
  5. Focus resources on schools, districts, and regions where the need is greatest. Efforts designed to lift all boats rarely help the ones already under water. Instead, especially given the need to allocate limited resources, states should focus their monitoring and support on local education agencies (LEAs) with one or more SIG, Priority, or Focus schools.

Increasing equity is a daunting challenge for all parties involved, from the Department to the teachers and everyone in between. While the five steps outlined here are important, getting educators, parents, students, advocacy and membership organizations, and other stakeholders involved at every phase from design to implementation is the key ingredient to success. Without broad, deep, and lasting stakeholder engagement that demands collective action and responsibility for solving inequitable access, we are unlikely to move the needle on this vital challenge.