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Pulling Back the Curtain

Promoting Fiscal Equity and Providing All Students with Access to Effective Teachers Will Not Require Forcible Re-assignment

SOURCE: AP/Seth Perlman

A Title I resource reading and math teacher works with her third grade students at Ridgely Elementary School in Springfield, Illinois.

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Video: A Million Dollar Difference: The Loophole That Keeps High-Poverty Schools from Getting Equitable Resources

Debates around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can be pretty wild, particularly when they involve two proposals reflected in President Barack Obama’s blueprint for reform. One proposal involves closing a loophole in Title I, which requires districts to provide their high-poverty schools with nonfederal resources comparable to those enjoyed by more affluent schools in the same district. The other proposal is about ensuring that all students have access to effective teachers, regardless of family income or ethnicity.

These proposals may sound pretty reasonable to the average observer. Systematically underfunding schools that serve pockets of low-income students seems criminally unfair, and research agrees with common sense on the crucial role that effective teachers play in students’ chances of succeeding in school or obtaining well-paying jobs. It’s hard to say the game isn’t rigged when teachers in high-poverty schools are on average less effective than teachers in low-poverty schools. So what’s all the fuss about?

Many people are afraid that the implementation of these policy proposals will look like Soviet wheat farming—lots of horribly detached staffing decisions streaming out of district central offices, famishing public education, and making teaching a less attractive profession than it already is. The specter of teachers being forcibly “marched into high-poverty, low-performing schools and classrooms” is scary, but it’s also something of a red herring.

A closer look at each proposal makes it clear that forcibly re-assigning teachers would be counter to district officials’ interests. The fear when it comes to closing Title I’s comparability loophole is that district officials would move teachers around to equalize levels of teacher experience across schools. This tactic would help districts ensure that their Title I schools receive nonfederal support on par with more affluent schools in terms of actual dollars per pupil. The reason is that teacher pay, which represents the bulk of school spending, remains tightly linked to experience, and veteran teachers tend to cluster in low-poverty schools.

But forced re-assignment of teachers based on experience would amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul, at best, and it would not help district officials raise student achievement and close achievement gaps. It’s hard to imagine that too many district officials are oblivious to the pressures of accountability for results, but there may be some who persist in equating teacher experience and effectiveness, despite sheaves of evidence indicating that any boost in student achievement due to teacher experience peters out, on average, after a handful of years. And there are other barriers to forced transfers based on experience. Such moves could easily run afoul of collective bargaining agreements or risk drawing districts into costly lawsuits for age discrimination.

Those still worried about forced re-assignment based on experience should take comfort in knowing that the National Education Association, the county’s largest teachers’ union, supports the ESEA Fiscal Fairness Act (H.R. 5071), a bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA). The bill, if enacted, would close the comparability loophole while specifically barring the use of forced transfers as a means of compliance. The NEA’s support honors the idea that high-poverty schools need their fair shares of state and local funds in order to offer a rich educational program in which teachers have the tools and time they need to help low-income children meet the same academic standards that their more affluent peers tackle.

High-poverty schools need their fair share of nonfederal funds to finance programs such as expanded learning time (a longer school day or year), mentors to support novice teachers, or coaches to support a rigorous curriculum. They specifically do not need additional funds tied up in the form of salaries paid to experienced teachers—unless those teachers are known to be effective. And this brings us back to the proposal to ensure that all students have access to effective teachers.

The problem with this proposal is not the stated goal, but that it tends to be discussed in terms of improving equity in the distribution of effective teachers. The idea of “improving equity in the distribution” of anything strikes a nerve in the United States exposed to decades of Cold War rhetoric. This is a bit ironic because some of the proposal’s most ardent supporters, including the Center for American Progress, envision market forces as the key to promoting equity in the distribution of effective teachers.

High-poverty schools need much greater latitude to offer differential pay and other incentives to highly effective teachers committed to working in them. This idea rubs some people the wrong way, of course, but it cannot be confused with forcible re-assignment based on effectiveness.

Some district officials who are acutely concerned with accountability may find the idea of forcibly re-assigning teachers based on effectiveness tempting, but there are at least two firm barriers to prevent them from acting. First, the disastrous effect that such a move would have on staff morale is almost palpable. Why would officials keen to improve student achievement purposefully alienate their most potent weapons in the battle, especially when other districts are happy enough to hire effective defectors?

Second, and more importantly, district officials are currently hard-pressed to identify their highly effective teachers. Virtually all teachers are rated as satisfactory or above in districts’ performance evaluation systems, and a reliable and valid means of identifying effective teachers through a combination of value-added estimates, observations of practice, and other technologies has yet to be rolled out on a large scale. The main thrust of any proposal to improve equity in the distribution of effective teachers is for this reason mostly about getting a handle on which teachers are effective and where they teach.

Beyond documenting the distribution of teacher talent, districts would have to come up with a plan that promotes more equitable access to effective teachers. Such planning can be viewed as one important aspect of the kind of strategic, results-oriented work that managers should be engaged in anyway.

The long-term economic imperative of raising student achievement overall and closing achievement gaps calls for bold initiatives. Closing the comparability loophole has its implementation challenges, and it will be no walk in the park to require districts to identify effective teachers, document their distribution across schools, and take steps to promote a more equitable distribution. Yet the idea that district officials would respond to these initiatives by forcibly re-assigning teachers, either by experience or effectiveness, is fairly preposterous.

Video: A Million Dollar Difference: The Loophole That Keeps High-Poverty Schools from Getting Equitable Resources

Raegen Miller is Associate Director for Education Research at the Center for American Progress.

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