November 12, 2014

The Teacher Equity Problem Is Real. The Proposed Solutions Are Not.

By Bellwether

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If teachers are the most-important in-school factor for student growth, we certainly don’t act like it. Students who need the best teachers tend to get the short end of the stick. Their teachers have fewer credentials, less experience, lower value-added scores, lower salaries, and worse attendance rates. As Dan Goldhaber, Lesley Lavery, and Roddy Theobald put it in their review of teacher quality across an entire state, “virtually every measure of teacher quality…is inequitably distributed across every indicator of student disadvantage.”
Our public policies don’t do much to solve these problems. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education issued a call this week for states to update their NCLB-mandated state teacher equity plans. But those plans are toothless (they’re just plans) and are aimed at the wrong levers. Addressing statewide inequities would require policies like changing school funding formulas to drive more money to poorer schools. Some states have done this on their own volition, but updated state equity plans don’t need to include any actions at all.
Perhaps more importantly, district-level policies are a significant driver of inequitable distribution. Flat salary schedules that treat all teachers and teaching positions the same, regardless of challenge or need, provide no extra incentive for teachers to work in harder-to-serve schools. And district budgets that rely on “average” teacher salaries shortchange schools with less experienced staffs. There’s nothing in this week’s guidance that would force districts to re-evaluate these sorts of decisions.
A better path forward would appreciate the federalist nature of our education system. The federal government can’t compel local change, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a federal role. I see at least four actions the federal government could take to address equity issues.
One, while this week’s announcement included the news that the U.S. Department of Education will be releasing “State Educator Equity Profiles,” the data really need to be at the district- or school-level to drive meaningful change. Creating comparable, accessible, easy-to-understand data would be an appropriate federal role and be a big help to local policymakers and advocates. (Update: The U.S. Department of Education released “Equity Profiles Data” files for each state that include this sort of information for all public schools, but the data are buried in complex spreadsheets that aren’t very accessible to a lay audience.)
Two, the federal government provides billions of dollars intended to support the educational outcomes of low-income students. Rules like the so-called comparability loophole–which allows districts to use average instead of actual teacher salaries for budget calculations–mean federal dollars are not getting to the schools and students who need them the most. goals. Closing the comparability loophole would provide an immediate benefit to low-income schools.
Three, the federal government has a role in ensuring that low-income and minority students have equal access to resources at least within the same district. Michael Petrilli called the Department’s recent warning that it would take a closer look at these within-district allocations “meddling,” but it’s shameful that our public policies disproportionately place students of color in schools with poor lighting, unsafe or temporary structures, and unequal access to technology and curriculum. We shouldn’t hold quotas for these things or try for perfect equality across all inputs, but the Office of Civil Rights should be involved when some groups of disadvantaged students get the worst of everything, even within the same district.
Four, if old and outdated district-level policies are driving inequities, the federal government should offer more competitive funding for districts seeking to update them. For example, while the Teacher Incentive Fund has historically focused on compensating teachers for their performance, we should also encourage districts to start compensating more teachers based on the difficulty of their job and the supply of people who can do it well. Even if we take performance out of the equation, we should try everything in our power to increase the supply of educators who want to take on the most challenging assignments.
In short, we’re not going to fix school– and district-level inequities with state plans. Intractable problems demand actions and policies, not just another round of plans.

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