What can states’ ESSA plans tell us about their efforts to improve equity in teacher quality?
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 has often been described as a civil rights law (King, 2016; Obama, 2015), insofar as it aims to provide “all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps” (Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] of 1965, section 1001). And no part of ESSA speaks to this aim more clearly than its requirement that states outline specific plans to ensure that students from low-income families and students of color are not disproportionately taught by “ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers” (ESEA, section 1111(g)(1)(B)).
The grim reality is that these two (somewhat overlapping) groups of students tend to have the least access to the most effective teachers. And, as a wealth of research findings has shown, teacher quality is the single most important contributor (among school-based factors) to students’ immediate academic outcomes and long-term achievement (Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2014; Jackson, 2012). (For a comprehensive review of the literature on teacher quality and distribution, see Rice, 2010. For more about how students from low-income families and students of color do not get their fair share of high-quality teachers, see Feng & Sass, 2017; Peske & Haycock, 2006; Sass et al., 2012.)
To advocate for equitable access to effective instruction, parents and other community members require access to reliable information about teachers’ presevice preparation, years of experience, subject-area knowledge, classroom assignments, and distribution among schools and districts. However, despite the broadly acknowledged importance of teacher quality, these topics have been largely absent from policy debates about and independent analyses of ESSA state plans (Aldeman et al., 2017).
To remedy that oversight and shine a spotlight on the strengths and weaknesses of states’ current approaches to ensuring equitable access to effective instruction, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) analyzed the draft (Ross, 2017) and final ESSA plans submitted by all 50 states and the District of Columbia to determine whether they are sufficient to identify, target, and ultimately eliminate existing gaps in access to teacher talent for students from low-income families and students of color. We identified opportunities for improvement across many states, along with specific examples demonstrating that strong work in this area is not just possible but actually making a significant difference for some of our most disadvantaged student populations.
What we looked for in state ESSA plans
When analyzing state plans, NCTQ looked for four components that represent the minimum actions necessary to determine whether inequities in access to excellent teachers exist, and to establish a framework under which states can begin to eliminate these inequities.
First, we checked to see whether states have established strong definitions for each of the terms, or their inverse, that the authors of ESSA use to describe substandard teacher quality: ineffective, out-of-field, and inexperienced.
The reasons for gaps in access to high-quality teachers vary from state to state, depending on local history, politics, and conditions.
Among these terms, teacher effectiveness is the measure that research has consistently demonstrated has the greatest effect on students’ learning and long-term success (e.g., Adnot et al., 2017; Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2014; Kane & Cantrell, 2013). As such, establishing a meaningful definition of teacher effectiveness is critical. We argue that states should define — or direct their districts to define — effectiveness based in part on objective measures of student learning and growth, alongside informed, subjective judgment (e.g., classroom observations, student surveys). Research, including the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, demonstrates that teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures yield ratings that are more consistent and stable over years, as compared to those that include a single measure of effectiveness (Kane & Cantrell, 2013). Doing so not only comports with the best available research, but also with our collective understanding of the highest purpose of education.
Additionally, because research demonstrates that teachers in their first two years of teaching are significantly less effective than experienced teachers, with the gap in teacher quality narrowing substantially by a teacher’s third year in the classroom, the strongest state definitions define an inexperienced teacher as one with two years or less of classroom experience ((Boyd, et al., 2008; Henry, Bastian, & Fortner, 2011; Papay & Kraft, 2015).
Data collection and reporting
Access to high-quality, transparent data that clearly present the current rates at which low-income students and students of color are taught by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers, as compared to other students within a state, district, or school, is essential to determining what discrepancies exist in access to effective instruction. Data are not destiny, but if states neglect to calculate these data and make them public, they deny their districts, schools, and communities the necessary information to determine how and where to intervene. Data are necessary not only to demonstrate whether differences exist in the rates at which, for example, students from low-income families are taught by ineffective teachers as compared to their peers from higher-income families, but also to shine a spotlight on the magnitude of any existing inequities.
Establishing a meaningful definition of teacher effectiveness is critical.
Teacher equity gaps occur not only among districts within states and among schools within a district, but also among certain student populations within a school. For this reason, states should consider calculating and reporting student-level data, alongside school-level and district-level data, to illuminate all existing teacher equity gaps (see, e.g., Goldhaber, Lavery, & Theobald, 2015; Kalogrides & Loeb, 2013). Additionally, states should consider whether certain types of teachers, such as substitute teachers or chronically absent teachers, are disproportionately teaching specific student populations. Relatedly, states should consider whether specific student populations — for example, students with disabilities or English learners — are less likely to be taught by effective, in-field, or experienced teachers. If these populations experience disparities, states should consider collecting and reporting additional data, such that any differences in access are appropriately highlighted and can ultimately be eliminated.
Time lines and targets
To monitor and assess progress, states should establish definitive time lines under which they commit to eliminating any existing teacher equity gaps. Clear time lines are necessary not only for public transparency and accountability, but also to enable states to track their progress over time. To that end, establishing specific interim targets enables states to evaluate the success of any interventions they are implementing and, where necessary, engage in course corrections.
Finally, where gaps in access to excellent teachers exist, states should intervene to ensure that they do not persist. Well-designed interventions with the greatest likelihood for success are those that target identified inequities in access. Such strategic disruption is necessary to upend the current status quo, which leaves far too many of our most vulnerable students without consistent access to excellent teachers.
What we found in state plans
Among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, significant opportunity exists for improvement in adequately leveraging each of these important tools to advance educational equity and opportunity.
Analyzing the strength of state definitions for ineffective and inexperienced teachers, NCTQ found that in one-third (17) of states, definitions of teacher effectiveness do not include objective measures of student learning and growth. Causing further concern, more than half (30) of states include teachers with more than two years of classroom experience in their definition of inexperienced teachers (see Figure 1).
Such rigorous definitions are not only research-backed but can be articulated clearly and concisely, as demonstrated by the state of New Mexico (Putman et al., 2018). New Mexico defines an ineffective teacher as one who earns an ineffective rating on the state’s NMTEACH teacher evaluation system — which includes, among other factors (observations, student surveys, professionalism, and teacher attendance), objective measures of student learning and growth — as well as any teacher who earns student growth ratings in the bottom decile statewide (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Using this strong definition as a guardrail, New Mexico has been able to target its resources and significantly reduce the percentage of students from low-income families taught by ineffective teachers. Over the past three years, New Mexico has cut in half the gap between the rates at which students from low- and higher-income families are taught by ineffective teachers (Bonner, 2018). New Mexico’s progress is due in part to its ability to increase the number of hours that its students are served by fully qualified teachers, as a direct result of including teacher attendance as a component of its NMTEACH system (Putman et al., 2018).
Data collection and reporting
When it comes to data transparency, states’ current approaches are especially problematic. For example, more than half of states (29) fail to publicly report data regarding the rates at which students from low-income families and students of color are taught by ineffective, out-of-field teachers as compared to their higher-income, nonminority peers (see Figure 2). The absence of these data hamstrings communities, advocates, and policy makers in their efforts to understand the extent to which inequitable access to excellent teachers exists among vulnerable student populations. Further, without these data, states, districts, schools, and communities cannot accurately target any interventions to ensure they are reaching the student populations most in need.
Tennessee is a positive outlier here, demonstrating that it is feasible to provide the public with regular and precise data in this area. Under its ESSA plan, the state calculates and reports the rates at which students from low-income families and students of color are taught by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers at the student level (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). This information, alongside the other data it calculates and reports, enables Tennessee to identify teacher equity gaps not only among districts and schools but also within schools. The state is therefore well positioned to support its schools and communities to think strategically about staffing to eliminate any existing inequities in access to excellent teachers, regardless of whether such inequities exist at the district, school, or student level.
Another hopeful sign is that almost half of ESSA plans (24) describe efforts to collect data on a broad range of student and/or educator populations, going beyond those explicitly mentioned in the law (effectiveness, in- and out-of-field, and experience). For example, Massachusetts calculates and reports data regarding the rates at which students with disabilities and English learners are taught by certain types of teachers, including long-term substitute teachers and teachers who are absent 10 or more days in a given school year (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Such data enable Massachusetts’ policy makers and practitioners to identify additional teacher equity gaps, which is a necessary first step in addressing inequities in access.
Time lines and targets
Transparent data are important not because they enable policy makers and the public to see and admire the problem, but because they give stakeholders the necessary information to do something about discrepancies in rates of access to teacher talent. Where gaps in access exist, states must not just acknowledge these differences in rates of access, but also decide on concrete plans and time lines for achieving equity. Unfortunately, though, among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, a significant majority of states (38) have neglected to establish such time lines. Additionally, more than 80% of states (41) fail to provide any interim targets, points at which they would determine what progress they’ve made in eliminating gaps in access to certain types of teachers (see Figure 3). The absence of interim targets prevents policy makers and the public from knowing whether improvements are being made and at what speed.
However, New Jersey stands out as a strong example of what states can do to hold themselves accountable for progress in this area (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). New Jersey’s time lines and interim targets are specific and measurable. For example, New Jersey explicitly provides that it intends to eliminate gaps in access to effective teachers by 2027, with a 1.2% reduction in the gap between the current rate at which specific, vulnerable student populations are taught by ineffective teachers and the rate their peers are taught by such teachers. New Jersey also commits to providing policy makers and practitioners with the information they need to determine whether the state is making progress in better serving some of its most disadvantaged student populations through its annual Educator Preparation Provider Performance Reports (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). This information supports strategic decision making about whether to continue, iterate upon, or retire specific interventions.
The reasons for gaps in access to high-quality teachers vary from state to state, depending on local history, politics, and conditions. Accordingly, the real work in ensuring that all students, including and particularly our most vulnerable students, have access to excellent teachers, must be data-informed, but it will ultimately be achieved through the interventions that policy makers and practitioners implement. Developing and implementing interventions with the greatest likelihood of success requires input from local stakeholders, who can tailor strategies and interventions to their specific contexts and evaluate their progress over time. For example, in the face of chronic teacher shortages in rural, high-poverty schools, Utah has been very strategic in using compensation incentives to attract, reward, and retain highly effective teachers in those areas (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.) — for Utah, that appears to be a promising solution. To address its existing educator equity gaps, Nevada is implementing “Victory” and “Zoom” school incentives to recruit and retain teachers in schools serving high proportions of students from low-income families and those that have a high proportion of English learners, respectively (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Given that the root causes of educator equity gaps differ across states and contexts, other states will likely require different interventions.
More gaps to fill
Our K-12 educational system fails many of its most vulnerable students in a number of ways, going well beyond its unequal distribution of effective teachers. For instance, 38 states neglect to ensure that students from low-income families or students of color have equitable access to school counselors, which is especially concerning given that Black students are more likely than their White peers to indicate that their school counselor had a significant influence on their postsecondary decisions (Education Trust, 2019). Additionally, students in high-poverty schools with student-to-school counselor ratios that meet the American School Counselor Association’s recommendations have better academic outcomes, including higher attendance rates, fewer disciplinary incidents, and higher graduation rates (Cholewa, Burkhardt, & Hull, 2015; Lapan et al., 2012). Inequitable access to important resources such as school counselors exists within the broader, systemic inequities plaguing our educational system. Across the United States, districts serving substantial populations of students from low-income families and students of color receive substantially less funding than those serving primarily students from higher-income families and White students (Morgan & Amerikaner, 2018). These are real issues that federal, state, and local education policy makers and communities must address.
States have a special obligation to ensure that their most vulnerable student populations are not systemically discriminated against by being taught at higher rates than their peers by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.
Nevertheless, given the outsized impact great teachers have on students’ learning and lives, particularly when compared to other educational interventions, states have a special obligation to ensure that their most vulnerable student populations are not systemically discriminated against by being taught at higher rates than their peers by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers. Doing so requires (1) establishing rigorous definitions; (2) calculating and sharing data demonstrating the rates at which students from disadvantaged student populations are taught by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers, as compared to their peers; (3) establishing time lines for eliminating gaps in access to excellent teachers, with interim targets that allow tracking of progress over time; and (4) implementing and continuously evaluating the efficacy of strategies, which should correspond to local context and need, to eliminate any existing gaps in access. Our students deserve nothing less.
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Citation: Ross, E. (2019). Ensuring equitable access to great teachers: State policy priorities. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 20-26.