The wonkiest of the education policy wonks are currently poring over the more than 1,500 comments, critiques, and outrages submitted as part of the open comment period for the draft Race to the Top criteria. As Eduflack has written before, much of what has been submitted has been put forward in the name of self interest, with key groups looking to protect their constituencies, their missions, or their very existence from the potential steamroller that is becoming RttT.
Over at the Politics K-12 blog, Michele McNeil has done a great job distilling the volumes of opinion into a few key issues. Most provocative to Eduflack is the message put forward by National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that RttT demand that all winning states adopt core standards by the summer of 2010 is far more aggressive than NGA and CCSSO has required of the very states who are being asked to help develop and implement the standards. While we appreciate the EdSec’s zeal in seeking to get core standards into the K-12 framework as quickly as possible, the timetable is one that is probably best left to Gene, Dane, and their respective teams. You can see McNeil’s full blog entry here
What’s tickled my interest this afternoon, though, is a letter that was submitted to the EdSec nearly a month ago (August 3, 2009 to be exact). The page-and-a-half letter is signed by nine members of the Congressional Black Caucus — U.S. Representatives Danny K. Davis (IL), Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), Chaka Fattah (PA), Bobby Scott (VA), Donald Payne (NJ), Yvette Clark (NY), Marcia Fudge (OH), Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX), and Diane Watson (CA). The nine serve as co-chairs and/or members of CBC’s Community Reinvestment Taskforce or CBC Education Subcommittee.
The topic of their missive? Achieving equity in teacher distribution. These members of Congress note that No Child Left Behind “requires the State educational agency ‘…to ensure that poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers …'” They note that Congress underscored this demand deep in the language of the stimulus bill, noting that “States receiving recovery dollars should comply with the teacher equity provisions within ESEA.” (Of course, they refuse to use the NCLB acronym, utilizing ESEA throughout the letter.)
In reviewing the RttT draft guidance, these U.S. Representatives (and their staffs) note that the “the proposed regulations related to Achieving Equity in Teacher Distribution do not address the statutory requirement that States take action to address disparities, fail to recognize the inequities based on race, and replace three statutorily specified indicators with the single and fatally flawed ‘Highly Qualified Teacher’ indicator.”
They continue to push on Duncan by stating “By ignoring data related to whether teachers are out-of-field or inexperienced and by failing to disaggregate this data by race/ethnicity, we cannot truly understand whether there is an equitable distribution of experienced and qualified teachers. Moreover, the regulations fail to enforce the statutory requirements to address these inequities.”
These members of the CBC close their letter by noting that the education improvement and innovation sought by President Obama and EdSec Duncan “will only happen if civil rights issues are consistently taken into consideration.”
And why does Eduflack care about this 500-word letter, when there are 1,500 hundred other comments and observations to key in on? For more than three decades, education advocates have been looking for a way to overturn San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, seeking a way to make a high-quality public education a civil right guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. In Rodriguez (as well as in subsequent cases in New York, California, and elsewhere), the equity issue has been one measured by school finance and actual dollars. Back in 1973, the US Supreme Court sided with San Antonio ISD, stating that school funding built on the local tax base does not violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The quality and equity of public education remained a local issue, and the guaranteed federal right has been eluded ever since. And with urban districts spending so much per pupil, it is hard for some to see that our schools are “inequitable,” even when the outcomes clearly are.
Whether intentional or not, the CBC is seeking to reframe the debate on school equity. When one reads RttT, it is no secret that traditional paths of teacher education have taken the back, back seat to vogue riders like alternative certification. Charter schools, with limited union influence and typically lower teacher requirements, are seen as a magic wand to fix what ails our struggling schools. With all of the talk about effective teaching, there is little focus on the effective teacher. Instead of talking about pre-service education, clinical training, mentoring, in-service PD, and the like, RttT’s headline has been about firewalls and linking teachers to student achievement.
It seems to forget that in all of those cities that play home to drop-out factories, historically struggling schools, and systems that persistently fail to meet AYP, we have a real teacher problem. Reformers will say incentive pay is the solution, as if the few extra dollars are all that are holding back teachers in poor and minority communities (unfortunately, that’s where we have our greatest learning and teaching inequities). The status quoers will cling to National Board Certified Teachers, not wanting to admit that most NBCTs are out in the ‘burbs, and those that aren’t will often use their newly found certification to change schools and move up the educational ladder.
We can match classroom spending dollar for dollar, with urban schools getting the same money as their lily white, suburban competitors, but that doesn’t ensure an equal education. Heck, it doesn’t even ensure an equal opportunity to an equal education. It is what we do with the resources that matter. And we can’t get around the fact that our K-12 schools in most need of good teachers are the ones getting the lousy teachers. They are serviced by colleges of education that push low-coursework and no-clinical programs, tossing unprepared teachers in the classrooms that need them the most. Those teachers struggle. The majority quit within five years. Those that stick around are the survivors, not necessarily the achievers.
If we are to make a strong public education a national civil right, the answer may very well lay in the quality of the teacher, and not the size of the per pupil expenditure. With all of the money going into data tracking, teacher preparation (alternative and traditional), and human capital development, we are identifying the qualities and performance measures that define effective teaching (as if we don’t already know the answers). If we accept that there is more to teacher quality than purely student performance on the state assessment, we can clearly build a rubric for effective teaching. Then we can apply that rubric to all of our schools. How do the drop-out factories stand up against their college prep brethren? How do the magnets hold up versus the dilapidated? How do the “fails to meet” compare to “exceeds expectations?” More importantly, how do the teachers in formers measure up to the educators in the latters?
anyone be surprised to see that those schools experiencing the greatest failure rates are the schools that are denied effective teachers? Would anyone argue that there is currently equity by teacher distribution? Can anyone argue that a qualified, well-supported, effective teacher has the power and tools to boost student achievement?
Do I think RttT is going to change its language on HQTs and address the concerns raised by CBC? Of course not. But I believe that its point, that the proposed “guidance abandons prematurely what is currently the only available avenue toward achieving — for all students — equitable access to strong teachers.” And at the end of the day, those strong teachers are going to be what makes or breaks this great federal education reform and innovation experiment.
I talk with a lot of folks who believe that Rodriguez is ripe for overturn by the Court (particularly based on its new makeup). Maybe, just maybe, the line advocates should be looking toward is one of equitable distribution of effective teachers. Historically disadvantaged students should have the same access to well-trained, effective teachers as their wealthy or white classmates. If the dollars are equal, but we’re putting our ill-equipped and ill-prepared teachers in one silo of schools and our well-equipped and well-prepared teachers in another, that is the very definition of inequity. And I’m willing to bet the house that that inequity is alive, well, and not planning on taking any vacations any time soon.