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Obama administration backtracks (again) on teacher equity

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have talked the talked about the importance of teachers, but when it comes to providing kids with equitable access to great teachers, they haven’t exactly walked the walk. Here is a post on the issue by Tara Kini, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. She is also a member of the Coalition for Teaching Quality, a group of  about 90 civil rights, disability, parent, student, community and education organizations dedicated to ensuring that truly highly qualified teachers are in all classrooms.

By Tara Kini

I’m confused. I believed the Obama administration when it said it cared about getting all kids access to good teachers. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have talked a big game by promoting the RESPECT Initiative, arguing that “no other profession holds out more promise of opportunity to children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds” than teaching.

But if the president and the secretary truly believe equitable access to good teachers is at the heart of equal educational opportunity, why have they rolled back the requirement to ensure our children equal access to good teachers? No matter how you define what a “good” teacher is — a full credential, subject matter expertise, and experience (as No Child Left Behind measured equitable access to good teaching), or teachers who produce student growth as measured by standardized test scores (as the Obama Administration chooses to measure it) —  the Department of Education’s recent backtracking on waivers makes it clear that equity isn’t a priority.

Actions speak louder than words. Right now, President Obama is earning an ‘F’ for his policies on teacher equity.

Early in his presidency, Obama breathed new life into the NCLB promise to provide poor and minority students with equal access to qualified, experienced and subject-matter expert teachers. The Bush administration had done little to enforce NCLB’s “equitable distribution of teachers” requirement. Obama, however, made enforcement of this provision a priority in his stimulus bill in 2009, conditioning receipt of stimulus funding on compliance with this provision.

Since then, however, Department of Education policies show how low a priority equitable access to good teachers really is for the administration. Here are just three of them:

1. NCLB Waivers.  When the Department of Education first announced the NCLB waiver program in 2011, it specifically noted that it was not waiving the equitable distribution requirement. However, the department has been widely criticized for doing little since then to enforce any teacher equity protections in the initial round of waivers. Then this past August, the Department issued guidance for renewing the waivers, allowing waiver states to apply for a two-year waiver extension and — unbelievably — giving states two years just to submit a plan for getting to equity. Apparently even this planning requirement was too much for states, and the department a few weeks ago backtracked on even this most minimal requirement. Under current department policy, states can renew their NCLB waivers without having made — or even promising to make — any progress at all on teacher equity. Many advocacy organizations — including the Leadership Conference civil rights coalition — are understandably irate.

2. Labeling Teachers-in-Training Highly Qualified.  In 2010, in a lawsuit brought by low-income students and parents in California, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Bush-era regulation that allowed teachers-in-training through alternative programs to be labeled “highly qualified teachers.” The label mattered because without it, districts would have been forced to actually disclose to parents that their child was being taught by a teacher-in-training and fix the inequitable concentration of these teachers in low-income, high-minority schools. In response, Congress passed—and President Obama signed — a law to temporarily overturn the Court’s decision, effectively endorsing the disproportionate assignment of teachers-in-training to low-income schools without posting any data on the practice. Last month, Congress and President Obama slipped into the budget deal an extension of this provision for another two years. Apparently for Obama and Duncan, supporting Teach For America — whose first-year recruits are now labeled “highly qualified” after just five weeks of training — is as much a priority as reopening the federal government after a 16-day shutdown. The low-income, minority students and their parents who are begging for equitable access to fully prepared and effective teachers? Not so much.

3. Transparent Data about Teacher Equity.  When Congress extended the highly qualified teacher provision in 2012, it required the Department of Education to report — by December 30, 2013 — on the extent to which low-income, English-learner, special education, and rural students are taught by teachers-in-training who are nonetheless labeled highly qualified. Incredibly, though data from California clearly show that low-income, minority, and special education students are most likely to be taught by teachers-in-training, Congress has been making its policy decisions in an information vacuum. Despite this Congressional mandate for national data to make a more informed policy decision (passed in direct response to the equity concerns raised by a coalition of more than 90 organizations), the Department of Education dragged its heels for nearly a year, waiting until September 2013 to even begin the process of collecting the data. As a result, Congress — and the public — will have to wait another year for this report. The department may be worried about the inequities that will be uncovered. The Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection has shown that minority students are twice as likely to be taught by novice teachers. Alternative route teachers-in-training are novice teachers hiding behind a different label, so minority students are likely to have a disproportionate exposure to them as well.

There’s a deep irony here. Duncan has threatened to punish California for passing a recent law to suspend California’s outdated standardized tests, which do not align to the Common Core State Standards, and instead field test the new Common Core tests statewide this year. Duncan is upset because California will have a short gap in having a standardized test score for every child in both math and English. (Students will take the new test in both subjects  — a change recently announced by California leaders —  but will not receive an individual score because it’s just a field test.) Supporters, including the Los Angeles Times, argue that the new law creates a logical transition plan, allowing California’s districts and teachers to move forward with teaching the new Common Core standards without worrying that they are going to be judged according to the old ones.

Rather than punishing California by withholding approximately $45 million in Title I funds intended to benefit low-income students, Secretary Duncan should take a look in the mirror. The harm to California’s low-income students of a short gap without a state standardized test score is dwarfed by the life-long effects that millions of low-income and minority students nationwide will experience as a result of the Department’s failure to monitor and enforce their right to equitable access to qualified, experienced, and effective teachers.