Obama administration wants better teachers for nation’s poor schools


President Obama speaks ahead of a lunch Monday with teachers in the Blue Room of the White House. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is at left. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is ordering states to devise strategies to get better teachers into high-poverty classrooms, correcting a national imbalance in which students who need the most help are often taught by the weakest educators.

“When a school or a school district or a set of schools in a disadvantaged community has disproportionate numbers of inexperienced teachers, that’s not a good thing,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters at the White House on Monday. “As a nation, we’ve had far too few incentives, and, frankly, lots of disincentives for the hardest-working and the most-committed teachers and principals to go to the communities who need the most help, and we have to get together and reverse that.”

The Education Department is directing every state and the District to devise a plan by April 2015 to get more good teachers into their high-poverty schools.

“If we do nothing, if we don’t highlight the problem, then inevitably the kids who probably need less help get the most, and the kids who need the most help are getting the least,” President Obama said as he sat down to a lunch of salmon, green beans and plum cobbler in the Blue Room with Duncan and four educators from high-needs schools, including Dwight Davis, a fifth-grade teacher at the District’s Wheatley Education Campus.

The Education Department plans to spend $4.2 million to launch a new “technical assistance network” to help states and districts develop and implement their plans. States will be required to publicly report their progress.

Read Education Secretary Arne Duncan's letter

Duncan's letter

The Obama administration is pushing to have states ensure that better teachers are assigned to high-poverty schools, aiming for more equality in instruction for all students. Arne Duncan sent a letter about the initiative to Chief State School Officers on July 7. Read the letter.

Forcing states to be transparent about the quality of teachers in high-poverty schools will create pressure to make changes, Duncan said, so that low-income children will have equal access to good teaching compared with their more affluent peers.

“This is a really important exercise for the nation to undertake,” he said.

Asked what penalties states will face if they do not comply, Duncan said he hadn’t figured that out.

The initiative doesn’t address the thorny problem of how to identify an effective teacher, the central challenge of teacher evaluation systems rolling out across the country with varying quality and results.

Low-income students tend to have teachers who have less experience and fewer credentials or sometimes no credentials at all, compared with those who teach in more affluent schools, according to the Education Department.

While there is little direct evidence that links those teachers to poor outcomes for students, low-income children clearly struggle academically.

On the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally administered test that often is called the nation’s report card, 24 percent of students who are eligible for free lunch were proficient on the fourth-grade math test, compared to almost
50 percent of their more affluent peers, Duncan said.

In Louisiana, the percentage of teachers rated highly effective is 50 percent higher in low-pov­erty, low-minority schools than in high-poverty, high-minority schools, according to the department. In Tennessee, the percentage of teachers rated highly effective is 33 percent higher in low-poverty schools than in high-poverty schools. And in North Carolina, highly effective teachers are 50 percent more likely to leave a high-poverty school than other more affluent schools.

At a roundtable after lunch, Duncan heard from 10 teachers and principals who work in high-poverty schools around the country. The teachers voiced frustration at the lack of resources at their schools and the regularly changing demands of their jobs.

But they said they stayed because of good working environments, with supportive principals and time and opportunity to collaborate with colleagues. Three of the seven teachers on the panel work at public charter schools.

Duncan shrugged off questions at a White House press briefing about a call for his resignation that came from the nation’s largest teachers union last week.

On July 4, delegates to the national meeting of the National Education Association called on Duncan to resign. Union activists, led by a delegation from California, were enraged by Duncan’s support of a recent court ruling in that state, which found that tenure and other job protections for teachers violated the state constitution.

But on Monday, Duncan went out of his way to say that he supports teachers unions and collective bargaining.

Asked whether union contracts exacerbate the problems in high-needs schools because they often give the most senior teachers the right to transfer to the most desirable schools — leaving high-needs schools populated by inexperienced educators — Duncan said he believes unions and labor agreements could be part of the solution.

He said he “absolutely agreed” with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who mentioned labor contracts in several districts that contained financial incentives such as hardship pay to lure good teachers to high-needs schools. She said contracts were a “powerful tool” to address unequal schools, a notion that Duncan echoed.

“Proactive labor and management agreements must be part of the solution,” he said after the roundtable.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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