Want Your ESSA Plan To Ensure Equal Access to Effective Teachers? Targeted Strategies Are Your Best Bet!

Want Your ESSA Plan To Ensure Equal Access to Effective Teachers? Targeted Strategies Are Your Best Bet!

Want Your ESSA Plan To Ensure Equal Access to Effective Teachers? Targeted Strategies Are Your Best Bet!
By Sandi Jacobs

sandi-jacobs-220One perspective on teacher quality and the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) holds that ESSA marks an end to the federal focus on teacher effectiveness strategies that developed and grew over the last decade. With no explicit requirements in Title II and released from the conditions of their NCLB waivers, this argument holds, states will hastily retreat from new teacher evaluation systems and reforms in other related areas such as teacher preparation, tenure, licensure, and compensation.

But whether or not you believe that federal policy has been the major driver of states’ teacher efforts over the last decade, this point of view undersells a very significant point in ESSA, one that potentially makes teacher quality an even more important topic going forward.  ESSA doesn’t roll back at all the mandate that states focus on the equitable distribution of teachers; in fact, it pushes it forward. States must now go beyond looking at teacher qualifications and experience as required by NCLB, and specifically ensure that disadvantaged students have equal access to effective teachers.

Accordingly, ESSA offers a new opportunity for states to rethink their policies to better support the recruitment, retention and development of effective teachers.

To do that, states will need to push their thinking beyond what’s represented in their current NCLB Equity Plans submitted to the Department last year. In general, the Equity Plans articulate sound strategies for building teacher quality. But the overarching characteristic of these plans is a reliance on “lift all boats” mechanisms. Rather than targeted strategies specifically designed to aid recruitment and retention in high-needs districts and schools, the Equity Plans most often speak to “rising tide” approaches intended to increase teacher quality generally in all schools.

I’m certainly not advocating against states identifying and acting on needed improvements in teacher preparation, induction and mentoring for new teachers, or professional learning. But focusing on these strategies in general—however beneficial to the profession as a whole—will not help close equity gaps. They may even widen them. For example, incentives to increase the number of STEM teachers through salary differentials do little to lure new physics teachers to the South Bronx if they can earn the same pay bump in Scarsdale. New professional learning initiatives may also be of considerably more impact and benefit to teachers in schools with more capacity and strong leadership, with which high-needs schools are more likely to struggle.

In fairness to states, the Equity Plans were drafted at a time that may have not been particularly opportune in terms of motivation or resources for the real strategic thinking that we hope to see in ESSA plans. It’s also fair to point out that there is only so much the state can do to influence where teachers work. But in reviewing them, I did find some  standout examples in the Equity Plans that can help guide the way:

  • Delaware – Delaware’s plan prioritizes strategies aimed directly at the needs of its high-need schools. For example, under the umbrella of improving school leadership, new activities include increasing high-quality preparation programs for leaders in high-needs schools and creating a network of leaders in such schools. Teacher preparation strategies are targeted squarely at preparing new teachers for urban and rural settings. The Delaware Talent Cooperative is a recruitment and retention initiative that offers financial incentives and statewide recognition, as well as professional learning and leadership opportunities to top talent in the states’ highest-need schools. The plan also includes a commitment to working with six districts as well as some charter schools to work directly on equity gaps and to identifying and sharing best practice examples from ‘beat the odds’ schools.
  • New Mexico – Rather than focus on teacher prep policies in general, New Mexico is acting to increase the number of teachers serving high-need communities. The NM Prep initiative has established innovative alternative teacher preparation programs that provide scholarships to talented career changers to teach in shortage subjects and hard to staff locales. New Mexico has also launched an American Indian Education Training Program to increase the pool of Native American teachers, counselors and administrators.
  • Oklahoma – Oklahoma’s plan is built around the needs of its high-minority/high-poverty schools. Most professional development activities are delivered at the district-level and may not address the needs of these schools. The state will use its resources to try to provide this targeted support. Recognizing that it does not have the capacity to deliver on-site professional development across the state, Oklahoma will use regional and virtual options to reach teachers in high-need schools. Other strategies include expanding the Teach Oklahoma program to more high-needs schools.  The program encourages talented high school students to consider teaching as a career.
  • Tennessee – Tennessee has sequenced its plan in four phases, starting with its current strategies, followed by data sharing, targeted supports, and then public transparency. The targeted support phase focuses specifically on state supports for districts with supply and/or access challenges. Strategies include talent management coaching, targeted differentiated pay elements, and identifying and scaling up effective local initiatives.

States are wise to think about the big picture issues in teacher quality.  There is plenty of work to be done to align state policy to support and improve teacher effectiveness and the needs of the 21st century classroom.  But as states begin to work on their ESSA plans, to really ensure that all kids–especially our highest-needs kids—have the great teachers they deserve, we are going to have to focus our attention and resources on the specific needs of their schools.

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