Obama Administration: More Federal Involvement Can Improve Teacher Quality

Published July 18, 2014

In the wake of a California court decision finding union rules send the worst teachers to the neediest students, the Obama administration has released a plan it says will solve that problem without demanding an end to teacher tenure.

In its “Excellent Teachers For All” initiative, embedded within waivers of the federal No Child Left Behind law, the Obama administration is requiring states to report regularly on their plans to get better teachers into low-income schools.

The initiative is a noble aspiration but vague and devoid of important details, said Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

“This is more the Obama administration making it up as it goes along,” Hess said. “It’s not at all clear how they are going to make this work. Are they going to require states to change pay systems to get teachers to go where they want them to go? Are they going to order states to move a sect of teachers from middle-class schools to poverty schools? Are they going to move states to hire better teachers?”

Don’t Mess With Texas
One frustration with the initiative dogs all federal involvement in education: The feds’ superiority complex, Hess said. States don’t want the federal government, particularly the Obama administration, telling them what to do.

“States will say they are going to go along, but you don’t really want to cross the Department of Education, if you can avoid it,” Hess said.

The initiative is intended to address a real need in low-income schools, said National Council on Teacher Quality State Policy Director Sandi Jacobs, but she also acknowledged the vagueness of the initiative and state reluctance to comply.

“Too often these federal initiatives require plans from states that don’t set the world on fire in terms of innovation,” Jacobs said. “It’s good news that the Department of Education is putting attention to this.”

Feds Fill Leadership Vacuum
At the heart of the issue, states typically don’t send the most effective teachers to the worst schools, but because they haven’t done anything about this problem, the federal government has stepped in, said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners.

“The federal government has the best of intentions, and they want to see a good result occur, but two things have to be said: they don’t have very much authority to carry out what they want, and because of that, they will run the risk of being viewed again as pushing their authority too far,” Smarick said.

Even though states may feel uncomfortable being ordered to report to the national government on teacher quality, they have little choice because disobeying threatens federal funds, said Smarick. It is unlikely states will “redistribute” efficient teachers to needy schools, he said.

Incentives Matter
Jacobs said states must provide good incentives for teachers to go to low-income schools if they are going to make any headway with the problem. Children in low-income schools aren’t getting effective teachers because, salary and job conditions being equal, teachers would rather live in high-income areas and teach in higher-income schools, Jacobs said.

“Assigning is one thing, and retention is another,” Jacobs said. “So how do we incentivize our teachers to work in high-need schools? We need to rethink our lockstep salary schedules and allow compensation that rewards teachers for being our best teachers, and also rewards them for taking on more challenging assignments. It’s not just pay—we know good teachers want to work with other good teachers and with a good principal.”

States have a lot of work to do, Jacobs said, and it’s not going to be easy, but making public reports is a good first step.

“Transparency is always a good thing,” she said.

States already working to change teacher preparation, certification, evaluation, and compensation will probably benefit the most from public reports because they will help direct leaders’ attention, Smarick said, “but in places where these issues aren’t on the radar screen, it’s likely that this data isn’t going to change a whole lot. Asking for a report isn’t new. The link between new, better data and change in behavior is not as tight as many would think.”


Image by Ilmicrofono Oggiono.