Narrowing disparities in student achievement — test scores, graduation rates and the like — is at the heart of California’s new school improvement system. Starting this fall, districts must also show how they are closing another gap: the distribution of inexperienced, mis-assigned and “ineffective” teachers — at least in the minimal, much-criticized way that the state has defined the term.
This gap is important because in some low-income schools, where turnover is high, a disproportionately high number of the least qualified and least experienced teachers are teaching the most challenged, struggling students. That’s why Congress made the equitable assignment of qualified and effective teachers a priority of the Every Student Succeeds Act. To a similar extent, it was also a priority of the law that it replaced, the No Child Left Behind Act. Both set requirements for state spending of federal funds for improving low-income schools.
“The quality of individual teachers is arguably the most important thing affecting learning in school,” said Brad Strong, senior director of education policy for Children Now, an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for underserved children. So giving low-income students teachers who are as effective and experienced as those for higher-income students “is a critical factor” if the state is to achieve equity and fairness in education, Strong said.
In its 2016 “Plan to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators,” the state reported that about 1 in 7 teachers in schools with the highest proportion of poor students were inexperienced compared with about 1 in 10 in schools with the fewest poor students. Inexperienced is defined as being on the job two or fewer years. While the proportion of teachers with emergency or temporary licenses in the poorest schools was small — only 2.2 percent — it was more than double the 0.8 percent in the richest schools and translated into tens of thousands of students taught by the least prepared teachers.
In writing the Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress said states should address not just teacher qualifications but also effectiveness: their performance in the classroom and their impact on students. But it left it to states to define what constitutes effectiveness and some, like California, sidestepped that intent by defining an ineffective teacher as a less than fully qualified teacher. Regulations passed by the Obama administration that the Trump administration rescinded in its first months in office would have prevented such a definition, said Sandi Jacobs, principal with the Washington-based consulting firm EducationCounsel.
The State Board of Education has yet to approve what it hopes will be the last revision of its state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act in response to criticisms from the U.S. Department of Education. But at its meeting earlier this month the board did approve the final wording for the section of the plan on equitable distribution of teachers, including new definitions:
- An ineffective teacher is a teacher with a temporary or emergency permit or a credentialed teacher without special qualifications, such as those required to teach English learners or students with disabilities, assigned to those students.
- An out-of-field teacher is a credentialed teacher with a one-year permit to teach a subject without the subject matter competence. For example, that could be a middle school teacher with a general education credential assigned to teach Algebra.
- An inexperienced teacher has two or fewer years of experience.
Jacobs, who follows the teacher equity issue closely, said that about half of the states didn’t include any definitions in their Every Student Succeeds Act plans, saying they would define the terms later; Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has approved many of those plans. Some states, like Vermont, chose a similar definition of ineffectiveness as California’s. But others, she said, followed the intent of the law, basing teachers’ effectiveness on performance evaluations. In Connecticut, ineffectiveness will be a pattern of poor performance ratings; in Colorado, it will be the bottom two performance ratings; in Delaware, it will be teachers who are rated “ineffective” or “needs improvement”.
The state board’s dilemma is that the state’s 4-decade-old teacher evaluation system, called the Stull Act, hasn’t kept up with skills that teachers need — such as teaching English learners, mastering new academic standards and using technology — and does a poor job of measuring how well most classroom teachers do. There’s general agreement that the Legislature should rewrite it (see here, here and here). As a further complication for the state board, the California Department of Education doesn’t collect data on teacher evaluations from districts.
The Stull Act has only two ratings — unsatisfactory or satisfactory — with nothing in between, such as needs improvement. An estimated 2 to 5 percent of teachers are rated unsatisfactory each year. The most recent efforts in the Legislature to revise the law and add a third rating category ended in stalemates in 2013 and 2015. Organizations representing teachers unions and school boards disagreed on whether evaluations should be partly based on students’ performance on state or locally created tests and whether evaluation criteria should be open to negotiation.
“We can reasonably disagree on what should be in an evaluation, but states are doing a real disservice if they don’t consider teacher performance in some way” in their plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act, Jacobs said.
In defining ineffectiveness as holding an emergency license, the state board steered clear of the evaluation controversy. Civil rights and student advocacy organizations criticized the definition. Children Now and other groups suggested substitute measures, such as rates of teacher absences and measures of working conditions. The latter, Strong said, could have included rates of teacher turnover in a school and results of a teacher survey.
“Credential type is not an adequate proxy for teacher effectiveness,” Bill Lucia, president of the Sacramento nonprofit EdVoice, wrote in a letter to the state board last fall.
The board didn’t incorporate the ideas.
A new attachment to LCAP
At the prodding of federal officials, the wording that the board adopted this month does flesh out what districts must do to report ineffective, inexperienced, or out-of-field teachers and how the state will hold districts accountable for more equitably distributing them.
The state plan says that districts “will identify and address” any disparities resulting in low-income students and minorities being taught at higher rates by these teachers. The data and actions will be included in a district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, the annual document that lists improvement priorities. The information will be more visible to the public than under the No Child Left Behind Act, and parents and teachers will have a chance to weigh in as part of the LCAP’s open process.
The state will review districts’ teacher equity plans and can send them back with suggestions for stronger corrective actions. The state also commits to hold trainings for districts and to provide resources such as best practices and other forms of support. The plan proposes no sanctions for districts with persistently large gaps in teacher distribution.
Some districts are already addressing disparities or have plans in the works. Sacramento City Unified, for example, is exploring the creation of school Equity Indexes that will look at teacher attendance, retention and experience by school. The district will then concentrate its teacher recruitment, retention and instructional coaching on schools with a weak index, according to the district’s plan.
But Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, a nonprofit organization that works with school districts on improvement strategies, is skeptical that the state’s plan will make a big difference. More likely, events on the ground will shape hiring, retention and issues of teacher churn, he said. A teacher shortage will force districts to negotiate for higher salaries in high-needs teaching areas like special education, he said. An expected U.S. Supreme Court decision eliminating mandatory union dues will force unions to reach out differently to younger teachers and consider changes in tenure and seniority policies, he predicted.
State leaders “could address these issues, but the discussion has been calcified for a long time,” he said. “A minimal state role reinforces the status quo.”
Strong said Children Now will pay close attention as the state board works through the details of the teacher equity plan, and implementation will be critical. Despite disappointment over the definition of ineffective teachers, he’s optimistic that higher visibility of the issue in the LCAP process will pressure districts to deal with staffing inequities.
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