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Sam Chaltain: The Problem with Obama’s Plan for Teachers

On one level, today’s news that the Obama administration is ordering states to devise strategies to get better teachers into high-poverty classrooms should be welcomed. After all, although it’s true that every child deserves a great teacher, it’s also true that if there aren’t enough to go around, the kids who have the least amount of existing social supports should get to be the first in line.

On another level, though, it’s notable that in all of the public language announcing this effort, nowhere does the president draw a direct line between the social conditions in high-poverty communities that directly impact both the capacity to recruit most persuasively, and the ability to teach most effectively.

This is all the more glaring because, in his letter announcing the initiative to all 50 states’ chief school officers, U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan said this: “Equality of opportunity is a core American value. Equal educational opportunity means ensuring schools have the resources they need to provide real and meaningful opportunities for all students to succeed, regardless of family income or race.” Duncan continues this line of thinking when he says, near the end of his letter: “Our continued collective failure to ensure that all students have access to great teachers and school leaders is squarely at odds with the commitment we all share to equal educational opportunity.”

I couldn’t agree more. But here’s the thing — we can’t address systemic inequities in our society, and the way they manifest in our schools, unless a project like this is intentionally paired with coordinated policy action in other departments, such as HUD or HHS. We can’t continue to pretend that the problems that plague high-poverty schools can solely be addressed by recruiting the best and the brightest, and then leaving everything else as it is. And we can’t honor the legacy of our founding principles if all we do is dress them up as narrative bunting for an ongoing game of Pass the Buck.

As President Obama famously said on the campaign trail years ago, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” And unfortunately, absent something more coordinated and far-reaching, that’s all this initiative is likely to be.

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Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create hea...