The Obama administration on Monday ordered states to devise plans to get stronger teachers into high-poverty classrooms, correcting a national imbalance in which students who need the most help are often taught by the weakest educators.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to state education chiefs, giving them until June to analyze whether too many of their “excellent” educators are absent from struggling schools and to craft a strategy to spread them more evenly across schools.

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 identify the root causes of their “excellent” teacher imbalance, craft a strategy to correct the problem and publicly report their progress.

The requirement that states file this type of “equity plan” is part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the main federal education law. But most states haven’t filed plans with the federal government 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 Monday. “We’re saying this is critical for us.”

Read the Education Department's letter

The letter

The U.S. Education Department on Monday sent a letter to Chief State School Officers urging them to submit plans for putting "excellent" teachers in classrooms that include poor and minority students. Read the letter.

She didn’t explain why the Obama administration hasn’t enforced the law in the nearly six years it has run the department. Lhamon and Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle struggled to say what specific actions their agency will take if states fail to submit an acceptable plan.

“The states will comply with the law,” Lhamon said. “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.”

Raymonde Charles, a department spokeswoman, said the fact that the corrective plans will be public will create pressure on school systems to improve.

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

The Obama administration is leaving it to the states to define what makes a teacher “excellent,” although officials suggested it is an educator who “is fully able to support students in getting and remaining on track to graduate from high school ready for college or careers.” Department officials also indicated what is not “excellent,” including educators in their first year of teaching, those without certification or licensure and those who are absent from class more than 10 days in a school year.

Low-income students tend to have teachers who have less experience and fewer credentials or sometimes no credentials at all compared with their peers in more affluent schools.

While the department has instructed states to submit their new plans by next June, there is no timeline by which they would have to equally distribute their “excellent” teachers.

“This is a nothing-burger,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “There is very little the federal government can do from Washington to fix these problems.”

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said the move by the Obama administration is well-intentioned but will have little impact.

“Effective teachers tend to be attracted to districts that pay higher salaries and have what might be referred to as better working conditions,” he said. “This just ignores the whole question of poverty. There seem to be blinders on the part of our policymakers in that they refuse to acknowledge the impact of poverty on our educational system.”