A recent New York Times editorial points out that Race to the Top—U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s $4.3 billion tool for reform—has failed to address one key reform area: a longstanding practice of allowing school districts to shunt inexperienced, unqualified teachers to low-income schools in lieu of firing them.
Pundits have long argued, writes the Education Equality Project, that the most important element of school reform involves making sure all students have access to good teachers:
“The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from,’’ says President Obama. “It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have-it’s who their teacher is.” Without “the right people standing in front of the classroom,” the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution concludes, “school reform is a futile exercise.”
And yet, according to the Education Equality Project, studies show that districts routinely put the least-qualified teachers in front of the most needy students:
How wide is the teacher effectiveness gap in high-poverty schools? A recent study in Los Angeles of 9,400 math classrooms in grades 3-5 found that students in the district’s poorest schools were nearly three times as likely to have teachers from the bottom quarter of teachers (measured by teacher effectiveness in raising math achievement) than students in the district’s most affluent schools. At the same time, the Los Angeles study shows that effective teachers have a profound impact on student learning. On average, students assigned a teacher in the top quartile increased their math achievement scores 10 percentile points more than students who had a teacher in the bottom quartile—a huge one-year gain.
In New York, writes Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times, unions finally agreed to make it easier to remove bad teachers from classrooms in 2005:
During my own 20 years of observing and writing about public education in New York, I’ve seen firsthand how exasperatingly difficult it has been for principals to oust abusive, incapable or negligent teachers who are protected by a powerful union. Instead, some principals would privately agree to swap problem teachers in a process known as “trading turkeys.” Others would offer such teachers a positive rating if they used their seniority to transfer to a different school.
The transfer rules were ended in 2005, under an agreement between the city and the teachers’ union.
But New York is hardly a model of reform. Freedman goes on to explain that now New York teachers accused of wrongdoing end up in the city’s infamous “rubber rooms,” where teachers are paid to show up for weeks, months, or even years while their cases are arbitrated in a seemingly endless process.
In an interview with The Colorado Independent, Van Schoales, urban education officer for the Piton Foundation, points out that Colorado–which is currently writing its Race to the Top application–could certainly choose to cease the practice of shunting inadequate, unqualified teaches to low-income schools.
But Schoales also pointed to a federal requirement that states have as many school districts as possible—and their superintendents, board presidents and union presidents—sign on to the state’s application. He worried that such a strict buy-in requirement will push the state to leave controversial proposals about what to do about inadequate teachers out of its application.
According to the Times editorial, Duncan is not the first to fail to require districts to reform this practice. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 also originally aimed to stop the practice of sending unqualified teachers to the most challenging schools. But then the Bush administration backpedaled.
The country would be much further along on the reform trail had the Bush administration followed the law. Instead, it allowed the states to define away the problem by re-labeling the existing, inadequate teacher corps as “highly qualified.”
The U.S. Congress tried again to keep unqualified teachers out of high-needs schools when it passed the stimulus act, writes the Times. But Congress, too, backpedaled, eventually couching the issue in “euphemistic language that asks the states to describe in vague terms whether the teacher corps is “highly qualified.”
The Times argues that this time around a timid White House is hoping to save the controversial issue until next year—and deal with it as part of the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.