The Department of Education recently sent a letter outlining requirements for waiver renewals to state education officials. This letter is an abrupt about-face from the guidance that was proposed in late August, with a number of provisions changed or removed entirely. One requirement removed was the only mention of equitable distribution of teachers made in the waiver renewal process. Though the proposed provision was flawed, the Department chose to remove all requirements around equitable distribution instead of fixing the requirement previously included.

Waivers are meant to give states flexibility around certain requirements in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). First passed in 2001, NCLB expired in 2007 but included requirements that went well past 2007, including reaching full proficiency by 2014. Since Congress has failed to reauthorize NCLB (formerly known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) since 2007, the Department of Education was faced with a decision of allowing states to miss unrealistic benchmarks or granting states waivers of certain NCLB requirements. The Department began accepting waiver applications for a two year waiver in September 2011. Now, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have received waivers and states that received their waivers in 2011 are now faced with applying for waiver renewals.

In August, the Department published proposed waiver renewal guidance that included a provision that required states to develop a plan for equitable teacher distribution within two years. Equitable distribution of fully prepared and experienced teachers is an important issue for low-income and minority students. Teachers have the largest impact on classroom learning, and studies show that fully prepared and experienced teachers have bigger positive impacts on student achievement than less trained and less experienced teachers. In fact, fully prepared teachers can help close the achievement gap among races. With nearly half of all K-12 students now from low-income families, the importance of experienced and fully qualified teachers cannot be overstated. Yet studies show that some students are consistently taught by a disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers.

Despite the importance of equitable distribution for those students who would benefit most from great teachers and the failure to ensure equitable distribution thus far, the waiver renewal guidance proposed in August only required states to develop a plan for teacher distribution based on their measures of teacher effectiveness by 2015. Basing equitable distribution solely on teacher effectiveness is misguided (not just because states are applying for waivers for the teacher effectiveness measure deadlines in their original waivers) and requiring states to only have a plan instead of actually making progress toward equitable distribution is an ineffective method of ensuring equity. Still, including even a weak requirement on equitable distribution in waiver renewals was a clear sign that equitable teacher distribution is a priority for the Department. The final waiver renewal guidance sent to states does not require states to do anything for equitable teacher distribution and is a signal to states that teacher distribution is not a priority for the Department. This is also a major missed opportunity for our students; the waiver renewals could have included real standards for states to make progress on equitable teacher distribution and increased access to great teachers for the students that benefit most from fully prepared and experienced teachers.

The Department has promised a 50-state strategy to address equitable teacher distribution to be announced sometime next year. But, as this blog from Public Advocates clearly states, the Department’s most recent failure to prioritize teacher distribution is only the most recent in a long history of such actions. Still, the plan and its effectiveness remain to be seen, and many education stakeholders, including the civil rights community, Public Advocates, and the Coalition for Teaching Quality, are waiting anxiously for the Department to take substantial steps toward ensuring that every child is taught by a great teacher.