State ESSA Plans Fail to Adequately Address Educator Inequities

State ESSA Plans Fail to Adequately Address Educator Inequities
Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP
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The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), originally signed into law in 1965, was designed, in part, to provide “all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” More than half a century later, data continue to demonstrate that in many states, districts and schools, pernicious educator equity gaps persist. Far too many students, and particularly low-income students and students of color, continue to attend schools that lack the necessary resources, including equal access to effective, in-field and experienced teachers.

The 2015 reauthorization of ESEA as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes a potentially powerful provision to address the systemic discrimination that occurs when low-income students and students of color are taught at higher rates than other students by teachers who are less likely to contribute to their academic achievement. Nevertheless, after analyzing all 50 states’ and the District of Columbia’s work to meet ESSA’s educator equity provisions under each state’s ESSA plan, we at the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) have determined that states have largely shirked their responsibility to develop rigorous plans to hold themselves accountable for providing low-income students and students of color with equitable access to strong teachers.

For example, among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of states fail to publicly report data regarding the rates at which low-income students and students of color are taught by ineffective teachers as compared to their higher-income, non-minority peers. 

Additionally, fewer than half of states limit their definitions for “inexperienced teacher” based on research demonstrating that teacher effectiveness increases substantially after two years in the classroom.  Instead, the majority of states define “inexperienced teacher” as a teacher with more than two years of classroom experience, meaning that these states’ inexperienced teacher data fail to fully identify whether and the extent at which low-income students and students of color are taught at higher rates by teachers who are less likely to be effective.

And only seven states include sufficiently detailed and rigorous timelines and interim targets for eliminating their identified educator equity gaps to enable students, communities and states to ensure adequate transparency and accountability, such that where educator equity gaps exist, they do not persist.  Instead, nearly all states are silent on when and at what rates they expect their existing educator equity gaps to be eliminated.  The absence of specificity in this space robs policymakers and practitioners of the necessary information to determine whether progress is being made and at what speed.  Ultimately, however, it means that states may not have the necessary information to continue and expand initiatives that are successfully mitigating existing educator gaps and discontinue those initiatives that fail to do so.

Although there is much to be concerned about regarding these plans, some elements are worth celebrating. A few states, including Tennessee, New York and South Carolina, go above and beyond the skeletal ESSA template by calculating their educator equity gaps using student-level data that are necessary to identify often hidden, within-school educator equity gaps that may occur, for example, when a majority of a school’s high-income students are taught by experienced teachers and the majority of that same school’s low-income students are taught by inexperienced teachers. Other states, such as Nevada and Utah, describe promising practices that are designed to address the causes of existing educator equity gaps and are therefore more likely to eliminate such gaps than the generalized strategies that many states include in their ESSA state plans.

Additionally, almost half of the 51 ESSA state plans provide evidence of states’ work to identify and address additional student subgroups or additional educator subgroups, beyond those required by the federal government.

ESSA is not a panacea; words alone are insufficient to change the daily reality that in our educational system too many states, districts and schools consistently and systematically shortchange the students who most need excellent teachers. Nevertheless, language matters. Plans, particularly those plans that are required to be developed with significant input from teachers, families, and communities, serve as an important mechanism to increase transparency and may also represent an important tool that communities can leverage to hold their leaders accountable. In states where a strong plan clearly defines state actions and expectations, parents, community leaders and others can work together to support that vision and can also cry foul and demand corrective action if a district or school falls short.  Accordingly, each state, and particularly those states with significant deficiencies, can and should continue to build upon and improve its educator equity plan in implementation. Our communities, schools and students deserve nothing less.

Elizabeth Ross is Managing Director, State Policy, at the National Council on Teacher Quality.

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