Feds push New York and other states to close gaps in teacher quality

New York will have to come up with new plans to make sure that disadvantaged students and students of color are as likely to learn from well-qualified teachers as their peers, a goal that has long proven elusive, following a new nationwide push by federal education officials.

The requirements are part of a new U.S. Department of Education effort to get states to revisit plans they created in 2006 that were supposed to ensure that qualified teachers are spread evenly among schools, but which have been subject to little oversight or enforcement. The federal initiative, which could have states looking at new ways to recruit, support, and retain educators, comes amid a renewed focus on teacher quality in New York.

Since New York submitted its original plan, more teachers across the state meet the basic qualifications set by the federal government. But black and Hispanic students are still far more likely than their white peers to attend schools with many new and uncertified teachers, and high-poverty schools in New York City still grapple with higher rates of teacher turnover than schools serving better-off students.

Meanwhile, approaches to measuring teacher quality have evolved since those first plans were made, with New York and other states now focusing on teachers’ effectiveness in addition to their credentials.

A state education department spokesman said Monday that officials were still reviewing the requirements for the new teacher-quality plans and did not yet know how their original plans would be impacted. A spokesman for the state teachers union said while officials there were still reviewing the details of initiative, they embraced its premise.

“We certainly support the concept of having an excellent teacher in every classroom and involving teachers and the other stakeholders in the decision-making process,” said the New York State United Teachers spokesman, Carl Korn.

The federal government required states to create the first teacher-quality plans after it became apparent they were not on track to comply with part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which said all students should have well-trained and experienced teachers.

New York State’s plan acknowledged that New York and other cities with the most low-income and non-white students also had the most teachers who were not “highly qualified,” which federal law defines as having a college degree, subject-area expertise, and state certification. The law says students of different races and economic backgrounds should not have different quality teachers, so New York’s plan listed ways it aimed to close those gaps, including by strengthening the state’s teacher-certification process and its teacher training. (The state education department is currently introducing a tougher, video-based certification test for aspiring teachers, but its full rollout has been delayed.)

Today, a smaller share of New York teachers are considered unqualified, but those educators are still spread unevenly among schools: Teachers who are not highly qualified taught about 6 percent of the classes in high-poverty schools last year, compared to just 1 percent of the classes in low-poverty schools, according to state figures.

Meanwhile, black students in New York are eight times as likely as their white peers to attend schools where more than a fifth of the teaching staff is new, while Hispanic students are six times as likely as white students to attend such schools, according to federal data from 2012. Black students are also 20 times more likely than white students to be enrolled in schools with a sizable number of uncertified teachers, while Hispanic students are nearly 16 times more likely, the data shows.

New York City has also had mixed success making sure that disadvantaged students have equal access to high-quality teachers, at least according to some measures.

On average, teachers in the city’s high-poverty schools had nearly two more years of experience in 2012 than they did in 2007, though that change was partly caused by a slowdown in hiring during that period, according to a report in May by the city’s Independent Budget Office. But teacher turnover remains higher at schools with more students from poor families, the report said.

States have until next April to craft new plans saying how they will make sure all students have high-quality teachers. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan promised on Monday to offer states guidance and about $4.2 million in technical support as they come up with ideas, but added that the department would not tell states what strategies to use.

That gives states a lot of leeway but also responsibility to figure out how to close the gap in teacher quality between schools, which they have so far struggled to do, said Deborah Veney Robinson, a vice president at Education Trust, a national advocacy group.

It is also unclear how federal officials will enforce the new plans, Veney Robinson added. Duncan only said Monday that the department might consider the plans when reviewing states’ requests for continued exemptions from the No Child Left Behind law next year.

“It will be very interesting to see whether these plans relate to changes for students,” Veney Robinson said.

Another question is how New York and other states will factor major shifts in thinking about teacher quality since 2006 into their new plans.

For instance, with prodding from the federal government, New York and many other states adopted the new Common Core standards, which teachers are now expected to help students master. And New York has rolled out new evaluation systems designed to rate teachers not by their qualifications, but by their impact on students’ learning.

Even before the new teacher-quality initiative kicked off in Washington this week, the topic has received a recent burst of attention in New York.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has called educator improvement a top priority and helped negotiate a new teachers contract that builds in more time for training as well as financial rewards for high-performing educators. Meanwhile, at least two lawsuits are in the works claiming that state laws make it difficult to fire ineffective teachers, a situation that they say harms disadvantaged students more than others.