We can all agree that all students should have access to top-notch teachers. But the approach the Obama administration is taking is unlikely to lead to this.
Last Wednesday, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent 14,000 school districts a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter outlining administration guidance on resource equity—ensuring resources and good teachers are as available to underprivileged children as to others—and other education policies.
The 37-page letter, “breathtaking in its scope,” as Roger Clegg wrote at National Review Online, noting that the Obama administration will be looking at funding disparities both within school districts and between them with a focus on access to effective teachers.
Although states already are required to have teacher equity plans under No Child Left Behind, the administration’s teacher equity proposal from July requires states to revisit NCLB’s Title I requirements by April 15, 2015.
As noted in July, the administration also will incorporate new data from the Office of Civil Rights into “state profiles” to flag “states where effective teachers aren’t reaching at-risk students.” According to Education Week, the profiles could include information comparing teacher experience levels, attendance rates and qualifications at high- and low-poverty schools.
The guidance issued last week by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said Office for Civil Rights’ analyses will determine if school districts are intentionally or unintentionally discriminating against minority students in their allocation of resources—including effective teachers.
But to define teacher quality, Office for Civil Rights’ guidance primarily uses “teachers’ licensure and certification status, whether teachers have completed appropriate training and professional development, whether teachers are inexperienced, whether they are teaching out of their field and other indicators of disparities in access to strong teachers.” Districts that don’t measure up are urged to “proactively assess their policies.”
The problem is top-down enforcement of teacher equity requires states to report largely on input-based measures—such as teacher credentials—as proxies of teacher effectiveness. Yet research suggests that inputs-based measures, such as paper credentials, have little to no impact on teacher effectiveness.
The question of access to effective teachers, specifically for disadvantaged students, was considered in the Vergara v. California case in June. In the decision, California Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down five California laws that govern the hiring and firing of teachers, laying the groundwork for school officials to potentially retain the most effective teachers and dismiss ineffective teachers.
Office for Civil Rights’ letter begins with a reference to Brown v. Board of Education, as did Treu’s decision. Treu compared Vergara to landmark cases that defined educational equality, stating, “While these cases addressed the issue of lack of equality of education based on the discrete facts raised therein, here this Court is directly faced with issues that compel it to apply these constitutional principles to the quality of the educational experience.”
According to Heritage legal fellow Elizabeth Slattery, Treu’s opinion “held that a disparity in the quality of education violates students’ right to equality because ‘grossly ineffective teachers’ have a ‘real and appreciable’ impact on the students.”
Although both Vergara and the Office for Civil Rights guidance mention Brown and recognize the importance of ensuring all students have access to quality teachers, the guidance issued by the Department of Education is unlikely to help achieve that goal.
The best way to ensure all students have access to quality teachers is not to micromanage school districts through bureaucratic teacher equity plans. Access to effective teachers and educational options can be better achieved through school choice measures that empower parents to choose schools—and teachers—to ensure the needs of their children are met.