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States told to help get better teachers in poor classrooms

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday ordered states to devise plans to get stronger teachers into high-poverty classrooms, correcting a national imbalance in which students who need the most help are often taught by the weakest educators.

Officials at the Department of Education sent a letter to state education chiefs, giving them until June to analyze whether too many of their “excellent” educators are absent from struggling schools and to craft a strategy to spread them more evenly across schools.

The Education Department plans to spend $4.2 million to start a “technical assistance network” to help states and districts develop and implement their plans. States will be required to identify the root causes of their “excellent” teacher imbalance and publicly report their progress.

The requirement that states file this type of “equity plan” is part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the main federal education law. But most states haven’t filed plans with the federal government since 2006.

“We are all dismayed by the lack of compliance,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, said in a call with reporters Monday. “We’re saying this is critical for us.”

She didn’t explain why the Obama administration hasn’t enforced the law in the nearly six years it has run the department. Lhamon and Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle struggled to say what specific actions their agency will take if states fail to submit an acceptable plan.

“The states will comply with the law,” Lhamon said. “What we’re trying to do is make clear what compliance looks like and what we … hope and expect this experience will be consistent with our past experience as well.”

Raymonde Charles, a department spokeswoman, said the fact that the corrective plans will be public will put pressure on school systems to improve.

The initiative doesn’t address the thorny problem of how to identify an “excellent” teacher, the central challenge of evaluation systems rolling out across the country with varying quality and results.

The Obama administration is leaving it to the states to define what makes a teacher “excellent,” although officials suggested it is an educator who “is fully able to support students in getting and remaining on track to graduate from high school ready for college or careers.” Department officials indicated what is not “excellent,” including educators in their first year of teaching, those without certification or licensure, and those who are absent from class more than 10 days in a school year.


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