The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday that it has approved Oklahoma’s plan to increase the quality of teachers in the classroom, especially those in the state’s poorest and most diverse districts.

The approval allows Oklahoma to implement programs aimed at improving teacher and principal training and retention.

The state’s plan, submitted by the state Department of Education in June, noted that the state’s largest urban districts often have the least experienced and effective teachers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press release that the goal of the federal initiative, called Equitable Access to Excellent Educators, aims to fix that trend nationally.

“All parents understand that strong teaching is fundamental to strong opportunities for their children,” Duncan said. “We as a country should treat that opportunity as a right that every family has – regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin, zip code, wealth or first language.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister praised the approval of Oklahoma’s plan, saying it ensures the state’s neediest students have access to experienced and well-trained teachers.

“All students deserve access to a high-quality education regardless of race, income or location,” Hofmeister said. “Our hope is that the Equitable Access to Excellent Educators plan will break the barriers and begin to strengthen the bonds at every school in the state.”

Oklahoma is among 16 states whose plans were approved Thursday.

All states were required to submit a plan to improve teacher quality and effectiveness in the classroom. The remaining state plans are still being reviewed and will be approved on a rolling basis, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Oklahoma’s plan calls for implementing a statewide teacher-mentoring program that pairs experienced teachers with first-year teachers. The goal is to provide new teachers support and advice as they enter the classroom.

There will also be a focus on recruitment, retention and training of principals to work with those teachers.

Much of the training would be done online, according to the state’s plan, due to limited resources to host in-person events.

The plan will incorporate the state’s teacher evaluation system to measure effectiveness, which also requires coaching and remediation for struggling teachers.

Oklahoma’s plan says legislation is needed to provide funding to implement the mentoring program.

Legislation was passed in 2014 that required the state Education Department to implement a mentoring program for new teachers, but no funding was attached to the bill.

State Rep. Ann Coody, chairwoman of the state’s Common Education Committee, was not immediately available for comment. A representative from her office said it’s too early to say what legislation will be submitted when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

Jennifer Gambrell, assistant director of education quality at the state Office of Education Quality & Accountability, said 16 universities participated in the pilot mentoring program mentioned in the state’s plan.

Each university paired faculty or staff with the first-year teachers. Those students were required to meet with their mentors at least six times during the year.

The program helped the graduates feel comfortable asking for advice on how to teach or manage their classroom.

“They could go ask little questions after they got into the classroom,” Gambrell said. “They don’t always want to go to the principal and sound like they don’t know what they are doing.”

A mentoring program would be separate from the pilot program implemented by the colleges and universities.

A statewide mentoring program would partner experienced teachers with first-year teachers.

Ideally, mentor teachers would receive training to prepare them for their new role, Grumbell said. They would also be paid for the additional work they would take on beyond their regular classroom duties.

A bare-bones training program could potentially cost about $35,000, Grumbell said. A state-of-the-art program such as one used by Tulsa Public Schools would cost about $300,000 to train 300 teachers.

The state estimates there are about 2,000 first-year teachers this year, which would require 2,000 mentor teachers.

Given the state’s pending budget crisis, Grumbell said, hopes for new funding are limited.

“There’s just no way. We’re in a budget shortfall,” she said. “But what Tulsa has would be the ultimate program.”

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