Obama: Put better teachers in poor schools

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 7, 2014 

— The Obama administration will require states to show how they will make sure that all children – particularly those who are poor or minorities – have high-quality teachers.

The White House said it’s another example of acting without Congress because lawmakers can’t move forward. In this case, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, Congress has not fixed the troubled No Child Left Behind law.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of kids around the country who are not getting the kind of teaching that they need. ... Typically, the least experienced teachers, the ones with the least support, often end up in the poorest schools,” President Barack Obama said Monday at the White House.

Obama and Duncan had a private lunch with four teachers who work at high-poverty schools, including Leslie Ross, a science teacher and coach at Allen Middle School in Greensboro. They discussed what’s being called a new state educator equity plan.

The administration will require states to submit plans by April 2015 and will spend $4.2 million to launch a new network to provide states support to put the plans into action. It also will publish data showing where there are gaps in teacher quality between high- and low-poverty schools and between schools with high and low populations of minority students.

Duncan declined to say what would happen if a state refused to go along. “I’m optimistic the overwhelming majority of states want to do this and have the heart for this work,” he said. “The solutions have to be local.”

What North Carolina might do is unclear. The state has operated under a North Carolina Supreme Court mandate to provide a sound basic education to every child since 1997. In 2004, the court said it wasn’t meeting that goal with poor children and concluded that at-risk students required additional resources, such as smaller class sizes, more instructional time, early childhood programs and well-trained teachers with updated professional development. Advocates for children say the state has discarded many of those remedies and that 800,000 children in the state are at risk.

Duncan said he was not familiar with the court cases, but said North Carolina’s schools were not as well funded as they once were.

“That’s not fair to kids, it’s not fair to teachers,” he said. “There’s a lot of hard work to do there.”

Teachers frustrated

At a roundtable discussion with more educators later in the afternoon, Ross told Duncan that teachers are frustrated because they’re being asked “to do something great with minimal resources.”

Ross has taught for 17 years in Greensboro. In 2011, when she taught biology at Ben L. Smith High School, one of the lowest-performing schools in the county, every one of her students passed the state-mandated exam. She was awarded the 2012 Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice.

Allen Middle School, where she is now the science curriculum facilitator, is another low performing school with a high percentage of students from low-income families. Ross said she has always wanted to work in schools where she was most needed.

But according to information from the U.S. Department of Education Department, in North Carolina, highly effective teachers are 50 percent more likely to leave a disadvantaged school than an advantaged school.

Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief School Officers, who was part of the roundtable with educators and Duncan, said states want to improve the quality of teachers at high-needs schools.

He said his group would work with civil rights and advocacy groups to look for solutions, including more transparency about education funding so that money can be found for incentives for teachers at high-need schools, and making sure there are ways teachers can move up in their careers if they continue to work at these schools.

The Council of Chief School Officers, representing the top education officials around the country, helped develop the Common Core standards in reading and math.

“Ensuring that all children across the country have access to the best instruction is a critical next step for state leadership,” Minnich said.

The education initiative requires no approval or input from Congress.

Plan is encouraging

Deborah Veney Robinson, vice president for government affairs and communications at The Education Trust, a group that advocates closing achievement gaps for low-income and black, Latino and Native American students, called the Education Department’s plan encouraging.

“For too long, our tendency to assign the strongest teachers disproportionately to our most advantaged students has compromised the futures of millions of low-income students and students of color,” she said in a statement.

A provision in federal law since 2006 that bans this practice has mostly been ignored, she added.

The Education Trust said low-income students and students of color tend to be taught by teachers with less experience and knowledge about their subject matter than those who teach white, more affluent students.

rschoof@mcclatchydc.com

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