'Effective' teachers for all? Yes, please.

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2014 - 6:19 PM

Federal initiative will encourage compliance with equity mandate.

Just as children’s ZIP codes shouldn’t determine the type of public education they receive, neither should family income dictate the quality of their teachers. But too often in America’s schools, both problems occur.

To help improve instruction for the neediest kids, the Obama administration says it will require states to show how they will make sure that all children — especially the most disadvantaged — have high-quality teachers. Earlier this month, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced plans to enforce a long-ignored federal mandate that states give students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds equal access to good teachers.

Called “Excellent Educators for All,” the effort aims to bring states into compliance with a teacher-equity requirement in the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law passed during the George W. Bush era.

That’s a worthy goal. State education departments and school districts should welcome any support for more staffing flexibility.

Research over the past 20 years has shown that teacher quality is a major factor in educational achievement. The studies also confirm that kids in high-poverty, high-minority schools often have the least experienced, least effective teachers.

Black, American Indian and Latino students, for example, are three to four times as likely as their white peers to go to schools where more than 20 percent of their teachers are in their first year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Numerous factors contribute to how well kids do in school, including parental education levels, poverty, household stability, and the health and safety of their neighborhoods. At the same time, teachers who build relationships and have strong classroom management skills can help kids overcome other obstacles to learning.

The directive from the federal department has three parts: First, states must submit plans by April 2015 that detail how they will encourage schools to put “effective educators” in classrooms with the most disadvantaged kids. Second, to help states write the plans, the department will spend $4.2 million to develop a support network for schools and states. Finally, in the fall, the department will publish “Educator Equity profiles” on which states and districts fared well or poorly.

The teacher-quality effort is another example of the White House acting without Congress because lawmakers have not moved to fix the flawed NCLB law.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of kids around the country who are not getting the kind of teaching that they need — not because there aren’t a whole lot of great potential teachers out there, but because we’re not doing enough to put a lot of our teachers in a position to succeed,” Obama said earlier this month while announcing the initiative at the White House.

“Typically, the least experienced teachers, the ones with the least support, often end up in the poorest schools,” he added.

The Education Department has not announced plans for enforcement or penalties for noncompliance, though holding back federal funding is always a possibility. Duncan has said that he understands that the solutions “have to be local.’’ He also said he’s “optimistic the overwhelming majority of states want to do this and have the heart for this work.”

Generally, Minnesota has done a better job than other states in placing qualified, properly licensed teachers in state classrooms. Fewer than 9 percent of core academic secondary school courses were taught by less qualified teachers here, compared with 20 percent or more in some other states.

But Minnesota continues to have some the nation’s largest learning disparities between white students and a growing population of lower-income students of color. Many of those students are immigrants or children of immigrant English-language learners who desperately need the best of what our education system can provide.

It helps that Minnesota, like many states, has recently adopted evaluation requirements that can be used to judge which teachers are effective and which are not. That information can certainly help guide school leaders in adjusting staffing to make sure that the most effective educators are teaching the neediest students.

An encouraging sign for making the needed changes came from the National Education Association, the national teacher’s union. Though the union has repeatedly clashed with Duncan and recently called for his resignation, the group’s president has said it “fully supports’’ Excellent Educators for All because it will create accountability and produce greater equity in every school.

We would hope this state’s teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, would be similarly enthusiastic about the effort. Our poorest-performing schools and students deserve a fair share of our best educators.

  • Key word: Excellence

    “Every student should learn in a classroom led by an excellent teacher, and to help make it happen we have to fix a broken law. … The administration continues to create more confusion and uncertainty through unilateral actions. If Secretary Duncan really wants to support students and teachers, he will work with Congress to enact lasting K-12 education reform.”

    Rep. JOHN KLINE, R-Minn.

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