About those Ed Regs for Improving Teacher Equity: A preview of new (old) findings

Posted on July 1, 2015



Doc student Mark Weber and I have been blogging a bit less lately and digging in on a number of interesting academic papers ranging from analyses of charter school expenditures to inter and intra-district resource inequality.  Among these papers is an analysis of data provided by ED for states to run preliminary analyses of measures of teacher equity across schools.

As states roll out their plans, this topic is again getting some ed media attention, most of which (if not all) misses entirely the point that regulatory pressure passed by states along to local public districts will achieve little or nothing in equalizing the distribution of teacher/teaching/instructional resources across schools and children statewide. That is, without any attention to inter-district disparities in school funding, which as I have noted, have only continued to get worse. Bottom line, you can’t fix cross-school, statewide disparities in resources without fixing between district disparities in funding. Here are a portion of the intro and conclusions of our current draft:

Intro:

New federal regulations (State Plans to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators)[1] place increased pressure on states and local public school districts to improve their measurement and reporting of gaps in teacher attributes across schools and the children they serve, and ultimately to mitigate revealed disparities. But, these regulations largely sidestep the extent to which availability of financial resources might influence the distribution of teachers, pointing a finger instead at “root causes” such as lack of effective leadership, lack of comprehensive human capital strategies and otherwise ineffective and inefficient personnel policies.[2] Failure to emphasize the potential role of broader financial disparities as a root cause of inequitable access to excellent educators, and thus failure to mitigate those disparities, may undermine the administration’s goals.

Despite a lack of explicit attention to inter-district fiscal disparities as possible root causes of inequitable access to excellent educators, the administration provides guidance on measuring teacher equity using existing data sources and measures which either directly or indirectly involve financial resources. While broadly referencing “inexperienced, unqualified, or “out-of-field teachers” as a concern,[3] the administration’s guidance also cites measures of teacher salaries and cumulative school site spending on teacher compensation (as reported in the recent CRDC collection).[4]

Coinciding with these new federal regulations are a series of legal challenges in states including California and New York which claim that state statutes providing due process protections and defining tenure status for teachers are a primary cause of deficiencies in teacher qualifications, specifically in districts and schools within districts serving disadvantaged minority populations (Black, 2016). Implicit in these legal challenges is an assumption that if statutorily defined tenure status and due process requirements pertaining to teacher dismissal did not exist, statewide disparities in teacher qualities between higher and lower poverty schools (under the statutes in question) would be substantially mitigated. Like the federal regulations, this approach fails entirely to consider that disparities in district financial resources may be substantial determinants of statewide variations in teacher attributes.

As a basis by which inequality should be determined, the administration places significant emphasis on variations in concentrations of children in poverty across schools. That is, resources should be equitably distributed across children by their economic status.[5] Just what “equity” means under the circumstances is left to states to articulate in their proposals, but the language of the regulations suggests that, at the very least, children in high poverty settings should not be subjected to fewer total resources or teachers with lesser qualifications – that there should not be a negative correlation between poverty concentrations and resources.

A significant body of literature explains that in order to strive for more equitable student outcomes, there in fact should be a positive – progressive – correlation between aggregate resources allocated and factors such as child poverty concentrations, disability concentrations and language barriers (Baker and Green, 2014). Baker, Sciarra and Farrie (2009, 2012, 2014) evaluate the relationship between district poverty concentrations and state and local revenues, controlling for other cost factors, to rate the relative equity of state school finance systems. Center for American Progress (2015) proposed several suggestions for federal intervention to improve inter-district fiscal equity, adopting the equity measures estimated by Baker, Sciarra and Farrie(2015).[6]

Others have similarly evaluated funding disparities across schools within districts, focusing on whether and to what extent school site budgets and related resources are targeted to schools with higher concentrations of low income children (Ajwad 2006; Baker 2009a, 2012, 2014; Baker, Libby and Wiley, 2015; Chambers, Levin, and Shambaugh 2010; Levin et al. 2013). Baker (2012) simultaneously addresses variations across schools within districts, and across schools between districts.

The Educator Equity regulations appear to speak to a goal of achieving statewide equity across schools as the unit of analysis. That is, statewide, across schools, children in high poverty school setting should not be subjected to less quantity or quality instructional resources than children in lower poverty schools. The regulations largely ignore within versus between district distinctions, leaving states to navigate this terrain. Inequities in available resources persist both across school districts and across schools within districts, and there exist important relationships between the two. For example, if one district has far less total funding available than a neighboring district, it stands to reason that the average resources in the schools in that district will also be lower, even if there is variation among them within the district.

Organizational features of the public schooling system constrain what varies between districts versus within districts. Total budgets, for example, are district level concerns. While state aid formulas fund districts and help determine local tax policy, local property tax (and sales tax in some cases) revenues are raised by districts. These local budgets support district compensation structures, teacher contractual agreements including the structure of compensation, restrictions on assignments, placements and related working conditions that vary across districts as bargaining units, but not across schools within districts. As such, the competitiveness of a salary guide is most likely not to vary across schools within any one district. Thus, when considering root causes of disparities across schools, one must consider what factors can and do vary only across districts and what others may also vary within them. It would be illogical, for example, to attribute disparities across schools within districts to contractual constraints in collective bargaining agreements that vary only between districts. As such, the “root causes” of within versus between district disparities are likely much different.

Finally, but for a relatively small number of very large city or countywide school districts, individual districts tend not to have high and low poverty schools, or high and low minority concentration schools within their boundaries (Reardon and Owens, 2014). As such, evaluating equity, as framed above, exclusively across schools within districts may provide extremely limited information – reflecting, for example, only the variations in resources across high to very high poverty schools in one district, and across low to very low poverty schools in another, but ignoring entirely the disparities between the high and low poverty districts.

That is, some explanations don’t require deep understanding of economic theory or equity conceptions. Rather, they simply require understanding how schools and districts are organized – that we have schools within districts – that funding levels are determined at the district level [state funding formulas and local property taxation] – that many districts have only a few schools. Really simple, straight forward stuff like that.

If the big disparities are between districts, resulting from state school finance systems that fund districts as a unit, then putting pressure on those units to fix between school disparities ignores the bigger issue. I’ve explained previously why the moneyball argument that districts with fewer resources just need to be more creative with what they have is complete and utter crap.

Equally absurd, as explained above, are legal challenges which assert that the remedy to teacher equity between higher and lower poverty schools and districts is elimination of uniformly applied contractual protections (in state laws), without any regard for funding inequity between districts.

Our analyses of the federal data in our forthcoming paper highlight a few key issues. First as a background point, in many states, large numbers of districts have only one school per grade range. Where “School = District” and where inter-district funding disparities drive school level resource disparities, funding free solutions to school resource disparities can’t accomplish much, if anything.

Based on analysis of data from all states [except Wisconsin, which didn’t report complete data], we conclude:

Conclusions and Policy Implications

Findings herein raise significant concerns about the effectiveness of attempting to improve statewide equity of teacher resources through federal pressure on state education agencies, as found in the State Plans to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators. State education agencies generally lack budget authority, or substantial authority to alter distributions of state school aid to achieve greater progressiveness of state school finance systems. The purse strings and tax policy are governed by state legislatures. Absent any ability to improve inter-district spending equity, state education agencies have little ability to create the conditions necessary to improve the distribution of teaching resources across higher and lower poverty schools.

In several large, heterogeneous states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, districts serving more children in poverty have fewer total resources; their schools in turn have fewer total resources, less competitive teacher compensation and less desirable staffing ratios. In several states identified herein, district level variations in spending are significant determinants of statewide inequity in school site resources. Thus, school site resource variation is unlikely to be resolved by regulation, absent any correction to inter-district spending disparities. At best, states may pressure districts to improve within-district disparities in aggregate and specific teaching resources. While relevant and important, this policy objective misses the larger picture of persistent disparities in total resources between local public school districts that are highly socioeconomically and racially segregated (Baker, Sciarra & Farrie, 2015; Reardon & Owens, 2014).

Early evidence suggests that state education agency plans to comply with federal teacher equity regulations are likely to be little more than window dressing. In the spring of 2015, we began to see the first signs of how states intend to respond to new Federal regulations. For example, in response to the new Federal regulations, the New York State Education Department released a memo in April, 2015. In that memo, NYSED explained that their review of equity profile data provided by ED revealed:

  • According to the USED published equity profile, the average teacher in a highest poverty quartile school in New York earns $66,138 a year, compared to $87,161 for the average teacher in the lowest poverty quartile schools. (These numbers are adjusted to account for regional differences in the cost of living.) Information in the New York profile also suggests that students in high poverty schools are nearly three times more likely to have a first-year teacher, 22 times more likely to have an unlicensed teacher, and 11 times more likely to have a teacher who is not highly qualified.[1]
  • [1] http://www.regents.nysed.gov/meetings/2015Meetings/April/415p12hed2.pdf

Despite mention of substantial salary disparities, NYSEDs proposals for improving the distribution of teacher qualifications are paradoxically silent with respect to substantial funding disparities that persist between the state’s higher and lower poverty school districts (Baker, Sciarra, Farrie, 2015; Baker & Corcoran, 2012). In the portion of the memo addressing “root causes” of disparities in qualifications, NYSED officials instead list “talent management struggles” including: “Preparation, hiring and recruitment, professional development and growth, selective retention, extending the reach of top talent to the most high-need students.” Indeed, the department (NYSED) has little authority over the state school finance system that yields these disparities.

The findings herein also raise questions regarding the validity of claims that state laws regarding teacher tenure and due process protections are a significant cause of disparities in teaching resources available across differing poverty and minority concentration settings. It seems unlikely at best (or even entirely illogical) that contractual protections applied uniformly across all local public school districts within a state could be a significant factor in creating these disparities. Across schools and districts, student characteristics, working conditions and resources vary, but due process requirements and tenure procedures do not. Findings herein suggest that between district disparities in spending are a substantial determinant of total staffing expenditures, instructional expenditures, average salaries and staffing ratios in schools. These factors contribute to the relative competitiveness of staff wages and working conditions. Coupled with related studies showing that between-district variations in teacher qualifications are as great or greater than within-district, cross-school variations, it seems far more likely that factors such as spending, which vary significantly across districts, are the more likely culprits inducing disparities in teacher attributes, and not state laws applied uniformly across districts. Findings herein suggest as much, directly and consistently.

Put simply, the amount of funding available to any school district determines the amount it can spend on its schools and, in turn, the combination of wage competitiveness and staffing ratios the district can provide. Those with more can spend more; those without can’t. Where inter-district inequities persist – especially where districts serving needier student populations have substantially lower spending – so too will inequities in the various indicators suggested for review by the U.S. Department of Education. Regulatory intervention without more substantive changes to state school finance systems will likely achieve little. So too will legal challenges to statutes and regulations which fail to correct inter-district disparities in available funding.

NOTES

[1] https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/11/10/2014-26456/agency-information-collection-activities-comment-request-state-plan-to-ensure-equitable-access-to

[2] The recent state policy guidance document notes:

“There are a number of possible root causes of equity gaps, including a lack of effective leadership, poor working conditions, an insufficient supply of well-prepared educators, insufficient development and support for educators, lack of a comprehensive human capital strategy (such as an over-reliance on teachers hired after the school year has started), or insufficient or inequitable policies on teacher or principal salaries and compensation. These are offered as examples of root causes; an SEA should examine its own data carefully to determine the root causes of the equity gaps identified in its State.”

[3] For example, ED guidance notes:

“At a minimum, an SEA must identify equity gaps based on data from all public elementary and secondary schools in the State on the rates at which students from low-income families and students of color are taught by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers (see question A-1).”

[4] Specific measures and data referenced include:

“For example, the Department encourages each SEA to carefully review the data submitted by its LEAs for the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), district level per-pupil expenditures the SEA has submitted to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) via the F-33 survey, as well as data that the SEA has submitted to EDFacts regarding classes that are taught by highly qualified teachers (HQT)4 in developing the State Plan, and any other high-quality, recent data that the SEA has that are relevant to the SEA’s State Plan. To assist in this review, the Department sent each SEA its own complete CRDC data file that has been augmented with selected information from other data sources (such as school-level enrollment by race and eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch).”

“Using data from the 2011–2012 school year, each Educator Equity Profile compares a State’s high-poverty and high-minority schools to its low-poverty and low-minority schools, respectively, on the: (1) percentage of teachers in their first year of teaching; (2) percentage of teachers without certification or licensure; (3) percentage of classes taught by teachers who are not HQT; (4) percentage of teachers absent more than 10 days; and (5) average teacher salary (adjusted for regional cost of living differences).”

[5] The administration’s guidance defines an “equity gap” as follows:

Equity gap: “an equity gap is the difference between the rate at which low-income students or students of color are taught by excellent educators and the rate at which their peers are taught by excellent educators.”

[6] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education/report/2015/05/18/113397/a-fresh-look-at-school-funding/

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