The Obama administration is directing states to show how they will ensure that all students have equal access to high-quality teachers, with a sharp focus on schools with a high proportion of the poor and racial minorities.
In a letter to state superintendents released Monday, Deborah S. Delisle, an assistant secretary at the Department of Education, said states must develop plans by next June that make sure that public schools comply with existing federal law requiring that “poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers.”
States last submitted plans to address such inequities in 2006, but data shows that large disparities persist.
“It is important to remind our states that one step in front of the other is the way to begin to deliver for all our students,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, in a conference call with reporters. “We are all dismayed by the lack of compliance and lack of satisfaction and delivery on this point.”
The Education Department will send each state data collected by the department’s Office for Civil Rights showing rates of teacher experience, certification, absenteeism and salary by school as well as student access to taxpayer-funded preschool and advanced courses in math and science.
The administration is also urging states to look at teacher evaluations to determine whether those who receive lower ratings are disproportionately assigned to schools with high proportions of racial minorities and students in poverty.
But the only requirement of states is that they ensure that teachers are equitably distributed based on experience and credentials.
Education advocates said such measures could limit improvements in the quality of instruction in struggling schools.
“There are going to be inexperienced teachers who are quite effective,” said Timothy Daly, the president of TNTP, formerly the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that recruits teachers, “and there are going to be some experienced teachers who are quite ineffective.”
In an increasingly rare show of agreement with the Obama administration, Randi Weingarten, the president of theAmerican Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers’ union, welcomed the guidance.
“We’re supporting this process because the rhetoric around this process has changed from ‘Just come up with the data and we will sanction you if the data doesn’t look right,’ ” Ms. Weingarten said in a telephone interview, “to ‘What’s the plan to attract and support and retain qualified and well-prepared teachers for the kids who need it most.’ ”
But other education advocates said they were concerned that the guidance could lack teeth. “The very real risk is that this just becomes a big compliance paperwork exercise,” said Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for racial minority students and low-income children, “and nothing actually happens on behalf of kids.”
Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, said states could set policies that would make some federal funding contingent on districts complying with the guidance. “The feds, kind of between the lines, are saying, ‘States, we want you to take more action’ ” and “ ‘You can certainly utilize all of these federal funding streams to incentivize or penalize.’ ”
School administrators said that given union contracts and other factors, simply looking at how teachers are placed is not sufficient.
It is not enough to “just find the best teachers and best principals and put them where they need to be,” said Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. He said districts needed to think about creating supportive school cultures.
“A teacher works in an ecosystem,” he said.