Time to Reboot Educator Equity Plans

Earlier this summer, Arne Duncan announced that all states have until April to send their revised Educator Equity Plans to the Department of Education. The plans are supposed to describe the steps states will take to make sure low income students and students of color are not disproportionately saddled with less-experienced, less-qualified, less-effective teachers (“inequitable access”). Too often they are.

Fifteen years ago, as an inexperienced, social studies teacher trying to teach math in a high-minority, high-poverty junior high school in New York City, I could have been a poster child for “inequitable access.” Not the victim, to be clear, but the problem. I learned quickly (and painfully) that, despite my training and good intentions, I was not a solution to inequality. I left after two years of flailing in systemic dysfunction.

Later, in grad school writing my dissertation on the macro-forces and micro-politics of teacher assignment, I learned that I was actually a symptom of a stubborn and many-tentacled problem. Inequitable access is not just the result of neglect or funding disparities, though data from the Office of Civil Rights suggests they play a part. It is also the result of a series of system failures from how we prepare teachers to work in high-need schools to how we design teachers’ jobs.

Since those classroom days, I’ve been wrestling with a couple of those tentacles, working with states as they implemented their 2006 Title I Equity Plans and leading the creation of an interactive web-based Moving Toward Equity tool and guide to help education leaders wrap their own arms around the issues.

So, Arne Duncan’s July letter to the chief state school officers was heartening. But states have their work cut out for them as they address several thorny issues, among them:

First, to attract and keep great teachers and leaders in high-need schools, state plans must be both comprehensive—so, for example, success in recruiting teachers isn’t undercut by losing teachers because of poor school leadership—and targeted to high-need schools.

Second, teacher labor markets tend to be local, suggesting that recruiting from afar will be tough sledding. Regional, not necessarily statewide, solutions that develop and support teachers where they live will be needed. For example, states could require that their regional service centers partner with local colleges and develop regional equity strategies that make sense for their particular labor markets.

Third, the reasons that inexperienced teachers are more likely to be placed with low-income students of color has a lot to do with school budgets, student-tracking patterns, parental pressure, and the intricate negotiations between teachers and their principals for more desirable assignments (often those with smaller class sizes and fewer behavior problems). Meddling with the dynamics is necessary but may have unintended consequences, such as losing some good teachers.

Fourth, educator evaluation systems seem like they could be used to see where ineffective teachers are disproportionately placed. The problem is that performance evaluation is an inexact science. Even using strong assessment tools with trained observers, research indicates teachers can be misclassified. And a Brookings study finds that in current evaluation systems, it’s easier to receive top ratings if you have top students.

Most important, gauging equity in teacher access by using educator evaluation ratings to compare schools and districts may give priority to sorting teachers over improving teaching.

Still, as educator evaluation systems mature across the country, they are increasingly being used to make better staffing decisions and provide evidence-based feedback that teachers can take to heart. Let’s not take away that progress but work to improve our measures. States should consider using other measures—including teacher turnover rates, experience levels, in-field certification, and survey data on working conditions—to understand and address inequity. And they should also look not just to measuring but improving instruction.

Action on equitable teacher access has stalled for years in part because of the difficult challenges mentioned here. Using what they’ve learned since 2006, states now have a chance to reboot. What they do over the next eight months is critical.

Jane Coggshall is a principal researcher at AIR.