Education Secretary Directs States to Alleviate Inequitable Access to Effective Teachers

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for states to develop methods to place effective teachers in high-poverty schools in a letter earlier this month. Calling for a plan to ensure equal access to qualified teachers regardless of race or income from each state by April 2015, Duncan also introduced the Educator Equity Support Network, which will work with states by compiling best practices and providing technical support related to implementation. Concurrently, the Education Department will provide each state with its data file from the Civil Rights Data Collection which will serve to highlight current income- and race-based gaps in access.

The achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers has been well-documented, as have the differences between teachers assigned to each group; high poverty schools have a disproportionate amount of new teachers and teachers from less prestigious universities. Further, the differences are exacerbated by weak administrative support for new teachers. The thinking then goes if you can break the cycle of low-income students being taught by less effective teachers, you begin to bridge the achievement gaps. To this end, 22 states have plans in which teachers can earn more money by teaching in poverty-stricken districts.  

 In a way Duncan is merely re-enforcing the No Child Left Behind mandate that every student should have access to a “highly-qualified” teacher. This moniker is at the heart of common NCLB critiques due to the questionable connections between mandated qualifications and effectiveness.

It is perhaps a mistake to think of effectiveness in terms of traditional qualifications –like Master’s degrees. The assumption made by many states and school districts across the country – as evidenced by their pay scales – is that a Master’s degree is a qualification indicating a higher quality of teaching. Despite the prevalence of the Master’s pay bump, education research almost universally undercuts this assumption.

Evaluating teachers on the job then becomes the recommended mode of operation; however it is not without its critics. Some argue that evaluation based on student test scores – called value added models – are biased and otherwise unreliable in high-stakes test environments. Others respond that the alternatives – like standard classroom evaluations – are no better or are even less reliable.

 In practice, state policymakers and school district officials have already taken measures to identify effective teachers, usually forging a hybrid of student test scores and classroom observation. 19 states require that objective student growth measures be the primary component of teacher evaluations and another 21 states require that they be used in some capacity. In total, 43 states require that evaluations have more than two rating categories, utilizing student growth measures and observations – both formal and informal.  

Demonstrating confidence in their evaluation mechanisms, 29 states include ineffectiveness as justification for teacher dismissal and six states – Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan and Utah – require performance based salaries for teachers. Of these six, Florida, Indiana and Utah require performance to count more towards salary than advanced degrees.

For states with sophisticated evaluation plans, the next step is designing a plan to put effective teachers in low-income communities. As previously mentioned, 22 states have made some effort to do this with monetary incentives, although research is mixed on the effect of such policies, suggesting that they may be useful in drawing teachers to targeted schools, but the lack of good administrative support and other school factors quickly outweigh the pay incentive and drive teachers away.

An alternative solution could be modeled after a program in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. As part of the district’s collective bargaining agreement, teachers in the nation’s fourth largest school district can be selected by their principals for involuntary transfer to other schools within the district if it is determined the transfer is in the district’s best interest.

From 2010 to 2012 – the first three years in which the district utilized the provision on a large scale – 375 teachers were involuntarily transferred. By identifying ineffective teachers, low-performing schools could swap them out with higher-scoring teachers from better, increasing district equity. Evaluators of the program offer mixed conclusions: while low-performing schools were infused with good teachers, they suffered from the same poor administration. Conversely, teachers transferred to higher-performing schools benefitted from better administrative support, but results suggest they still underperformed.

Similar to pay incentives, involuntary transfer fails to address significant limiting factors of high-poverty schools: poor administrative support for teachers and students, teacher turnover and student peer effects.

Still, involuntary transfer in Miami-Dade could prove a useful resource for states looking to comply with Duncan’s request, and characterizes a much more serious attempt to increase equity in education than do pay incentives. Implementation at the state level could introduce new challenges – both logistically and politically – but the program could provide a starting point for states beginning to think about equalizing access to good teachers.