Can the Feds Keep High-Poverty Schools From Being Dumping Grounds for Bad Teachers?

The U.S. Department of Education plans to enforce policies designed to ensure that low-income, minority kids are taught by competent, highly qualified instructors.

(Photo: It's Our City/Flickr)

Nov 14, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

For education activists, it’s exhibit A in the case proving unequal education: a disproportionate number of subpar teachers are working at chronically failing schools in poor, largely minority communities.

This week, however, the U.S. Department of Education moved to reverse the trend, ordering state school officials nationwide to assess whether poor schools are dumping grounds for poor teachers and draft a plan to ensure all students have access to the best education.

Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the department, wrote a letter to top school officials in every state outlining the parameters of the requirement. The goal, she wrote, is to have the districts comply with a federal law mandating that “poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers.”

To help, federal education officials have set aside $4.2 million for a new “technical assistance network” to help state-level authorities get to the root of the problems, develop solutions, and report their progress, according to the letter. That includes webinars and other online resources as well as tools to help districts compile data, profile schools, and craft guidelines for identifying highly skilled teachers.

The move to require states to file “equity plans” with the federal government stems from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which is the primary federal education law. But that aspect of the law hasn’t been consistently enforced, and most states haven’t filed plans since 2006.

“We are all dismayed by the lack of compliance,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, said in a call with reporters on Monday. “We’re saying this is critical for us.”

Last week, a coalition of civil rights leaders and education advocates sent a letter to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and congressional leaders demanding they address inequalities between schools in rich and poor, mostly minority districts. Their complaints centered on resource disparity, including a shortage of high-performing teachers and a dearth of quality classes.

Dr. Joseph Bishop, director of policy for the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, says the Department of Education’s letter to state officials is a positive step toward solving a lingering problem. But the mandate alone won’t reverse the situation, and the federal government isn’t giving the states much money to work with.

“It’s part of a larger equity agenda,” including school funding and institutional support for teachers who excel, says Bishop, who also is national coordinator with the Coalition for Teaching Quality. Equitable distribution of high-performing teachers, he added, “is a key part of the equation but not the only thing.”

For example, Bishop says, most schools in poor communities tend to have a web of problems that cause them to fail: crumbling buildings; lack of books and other supplies; ineffective leadership; an absence of community support. Even a food desert—a neighborhood where kids can’t get fresh nutritious food—can have an impact on learning.

“You might have the most talented teacher on the planet” but he or she would struggle in that situation, Bishop says. “A board-certified teacher of the year can do a lot, but they can’t do everything.”

Bishop believes that the Department of Education is right to make teacher equity an issue, but the approach should be more holistic—addressing the root causes of why schools fail—and provide money to back up its rhetoric. “Symbolically, it’s helpful. We’ll see what comes of it,” he says.

Still, the Department of Education believes the schools will get the message that they need to comply with the law, although officials did not address what consequences they’ll face if they fail.

“The states will comply with the law,” Lhamon said in the conference call. “What we’re trying to do is make clear what compliance looks like and what we...we hope and expect this experience will be consistent with our past experience as well.”