Flexibility Is Key in Administration's Call for Teacher Equity Plans


Aug 22, 2014

A teacher talking to a student at his desk

Photo by George Doyle/iStock

This summer, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a strategy to ensure that low-income and minority students have equal access to strong teachers: by April of next year, states must submit equity plans explaining how they'll promote such access. To assist, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) will report on differences in teacher qualifications between high-poverty and low-poverty schools in each state, such as teachers' years of experience and whether they are highly qualified (that is, whether they hold a major or license) in the fields they teach. Unfortunately, the strategy focuses on the wrong metrics for evaluating strong teachers, and, without a thoughtful refocusing, is not likely to lead to big improvements for at-risk students.

The move aims to better enforce an equal-access provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that has been in place since the law's 2001 reauthorization, known as “No Child Left Behind.” But like the provision, the administration's new strategy is based on a dated understanding of teacher quality. Thirteen years of research have clarified that metrics like teacher experience and licensure reveal little about teachers' impact on student learning. The focus should be on disadvantaged students' access to effective teachers—that is, teachers who consistently improve their students' outcomes and ability to play a positive role in their own lives and communities.

It has been known for decades that teachers' experience levels and licensure rates were lower in high-poverty schools. This knowledge challenged the notion of public schooling as a level playing field for student opportunity and advancement. But the surprise from recent research on teacher impact on student test scores—commonly known as “value-added”—is that effective teachers (even after adjusting for the background characteristics of students and classroom peers) may be distributed more equally than policymakers would have thought. Furthermore, teachers who do more than average to raise student scores on state standardized tests are usually the same teachers who raise student performance on measures of deeper thinking and, indeed, improve their life outcomes such as greater college attendance and lifetime earnings and lower rates of teen pregnancy.

In an ongoing study of teacher quality reforms that we are conducting with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in four metropolitan areas, RAND and the American Institutes for Research are finding that teachers with many disadvantaged students have value-added estimates that are often as high as or higher than teachers with few disadvantaged students. However, there is no single, overriding pattern: disadvantaged students' access to stronger teachers appears to vary by subject (mathematics or reading), by school year, and by district. This finding is somewhat consistent with several other recent studies, including a large ED-funded study of 29 school districts. That study found that disadvantaged students had slightly lower access to good teaching on average, but the average difference was small, and the relative access of disadvantaged students to good teaching varied markedly among districts.

Moreover, the sources of unequal access appear more complicated than common wisdom suggests, i.e., that more-experienced, stronger teachers choose better working conditions in more-advantaged schools and districts. For example, access to good teaching appears to vary even within schools. Most studies of the distribution of teacher value-added show more variation in teacher effectiveness within any given school than between different schools in a district. And our work for the Gates Foundation suggests that, at least in the districts in the study, disadvantaged students' access to top teachers may be most limited within their own schools. It's not clear what drives this pattern—it could be academic tracking, parent lobbying, preferential treatment of top teachers, or other dynamics. But it is clear that policy efforts to move top teachers to low-income schools will not address inequities within schools, and that within-school equity considerations should not be ignored in discussions of equal access to effective teaching.

Despite the compelling goal of leveling the educational playing field, ED's new plan to measure differences in teacher qualifications between high-poverty and low-poverty schools is unlikely to shed much light on access to high-value-added teachers or on access to effective teachers within a given school. In other words, the greater reporting requirements may not actually yield greater transparency about students' access to effective teaching.

What is promising about the department's proposal is the flexibility it gives states to identify where equity problems lie and make plans tailored to the challenges they face. As states make these plans, they should remember that different distribution patterns call for different policy solutions. If inequities are most pronounced within schools, then school leaders may need to ensure that disadvantaged students are able to enroll in advanced classes, and that classes that serve many disadvantaged students are staffed with strong teachers. If inequities are most pronounced between schools within the same district, this may call for district-level incentive programs to encourage strong teachers—and school leaders—to work in disadvantaged schools. If inequities are most pronounced between districts or between geographic regions within a state, this may call for state efforts to build a stronger teaching workforce in underserved areas though new teacher preparation, recruitment, or incentive efforts.

Another promising aspect of the flexibility of the department's proposal is that states presumably have the option of adding a value-added measure of effectiveness to the list of teacher qualifications when they create profiles of the distribution of quality teaching within schools, between schools and between districts. With this additional information, profiles will give advocates the insight they need to monitor access to high-quality teaching. Although not all states have systems that allow them to calculate value-added for all teachers of core academic subjects, the goal of expanding access to great teaching should increase the pressure to create these systems.

Ultimately, improving the classroom experiences of disadvantaged students requires more than scrutinizing the experience levels and licensure rates of their teachers, and more, even, than assessing small differences in the value-added estimates among teachers. It requires understanding the dynamics that lead to inequity and ensuring that the policy solutions fit the problem. If thoughtfully developed, states' equity plans could take a promising step in that direction.

Jennifer Steele is a policy researcher and John Engberg is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation. Brian Stecher is a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and associate director of RAND Education.

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