Education Opinion

A Blessing in Disguise

By Kate Walsh — June 04, 2003 7 min read
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Few states have glimpsed the opportunity that the 'No Child Left Behind' Act offers to take the lead in rethinking teacher quality.

A friend who is a principal in one of Baltimore’s best public high schools called me last month, sounding fed up. Although he is accustomed to doing battle with the central office, the latest dictum thoroughly discouraged him. He had been informed by the bureaucracy that some of his newest and most promising teachers could not return next year because they lacked “full certification.” His supervisor warned him that it was pointless to fight the decision, since the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 makes it “illegal to keep uncertified teachers on staff.” The level of anxiety about this law among the school system’s downtown staff members was inordinately high, the principal reported, which was never good news for him or his school.

This principal could have been describing the atmosphere in a lot of U.S. school districts, not just Baltimore’s. Newspapers across the land are chronicling growing apprehension as states and school systems strive to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act’s “highly qualified teacher” requirements. The conventional wisdom among state and district officials is that the law demands extraordinary vigilance to ensure that teachers hold appropriate credentials, a mandate that many of them judge unrealistic, even naive. Both states with lots of rural schools and those with large urban populations (that is, nearly every state in the nation) claim that it simply won’t prove possible to staff every classroom with a highly qualified teacher.

Whether that is so depends, of course, on how the “highly qualified” standard is interpreted and applied. The specific provisions of the new federal legislation are very similar to what is already required by most state laws, namely that a teacher must have at least a college degree; be fully certified; and demonstrate some evidence of specific knowledge about what he or she is seeking to teach. What few state and local officials seem to have noticed, however, is that the No Child Left Behind Act never defines what it means to be fully certified, leaving it up to states to decide. That’s where the trouble lies. But this notable ambiguity also provides a rare opportunity to rethink and reshape a system that is working badly in a lot of places.

Many states have established elaborate requirements for certification, requirements that many current candidates cannot meet. Of necessity, then, states have had to look the other way while districts employ teachers who have no business being in the classroom—the so-called “warm body” system. If the No Child Left Behind Act is interpreted as a federal mandate to pursue these same standards, but with greater vigilance and under federal surveillance, the states have every reason to be anxious. A pool of qualified teachers is not suddenly going to materialize just because Congress and the president say it should.

So we face a dilemma. If certification under the new federal law is taken to mean what certification has come to mean under state law, the requirement for highly qualified teachers will not be met. Federal requirements will multiply former hurdles that prospective teachers and struggling school districts are expected to overcome. States will fall short of requirements required under federal law. And the promise of the No Child Left Behind legislation will never be kept.

The question is whether the act places states in that kind of box, or offers a terrific opportunity to think “outside the box.” The legislation’s agnostic silence on this critical issue certainly suggests that the latter course is open and worthy of exploration. Pressure to meet a requirement that appears on its face to be completely unrealistic should provide the impetus to overhaul arcane, burdensome—and not very sound—definitions of who is “certified.” If states replace the volumes of meaningless regulations accumulated through the years with sounder guidelines as to what qualifies a teacher for service in the classroom, we can staff America’s schools with bodies that are not only warm but also highly qualified to teach.

Thus far, unfortunately, few states have glimpsed the opportunity that the No Child Left Behind Act offers to take the lead in rethinking teacher quality. Given the language of the law, states’ confusion is understandable, and it is only recently that the U.S. Department of Education has begun shedding light on the options states have before them. In a recent speech to a teacher “summit” in Austin, Texas, Associate Deputy Undersecretary Michael J. Petrilli said plainly that “nothing in No Child Left Behind precludes you from being bold on certification. In fact, it gives you a wonderful opportunity to think big, and we hope you take it.”

What might “thinking big” lead to with respect to teacher certification?

Nearly everyone concedes that many characteristics more accurately predict who will be an effective teacher than an array of courses listed on a college transcript. Yet transcript matching is the most common approach to certification at present. It is known, for example, that verbal ability is the leading measurable predictor of good teaching. However, no state uses this measure to help determine a candidate’s qualification to teach, despite 50 years of research showing it to be a much stronger indicator of quality than education coursework.

Pressure to meet a requirement that appears on its face to be completely unrealistic should provide the impetus to overhaul arcane, burdensome—and not very sound—definitions of who is 'certified.'

One obvious option for states to consider is granting full certification to anyone who can pass a rigorous test in areas deemed important by state education officials. It’s high time to recognize that there are a lot of prospective teaching candidates who have acquired, for example, good geographic knowledge without taking a geography course, or who possess great pedagogical skills without having enrolled in an undergraduate course on child development.

While such tests would certainly help deregulate the profession and provide better predictors of quality than we have now, they would not address the legitimate concern that teaching is at least as much art as science. There are many “immeasurable” characteristics of an effective teacher: a passion for the subject, empathy for children, persistence in the face of adversity, and a commitment to high standards, for example. But aren’t these qualities identifiable and, with enough work and research, measurable? Why not work toward making these qualities a basis for certification? Good principals have been making such judgments for years, with surely at least a measure of accuracy. Teach For America has begun to assess applicants on an array of intangible qualities needed for successful teaching in difficult settings. Certainly, many corporations and government agencies such as the Foreign Service have been conducting psychological assessments for years in the course of screening candidates.

Another perfectly viable option for states to consider is to adopt the system used by private schools, essentially a market-based approach, that entrusts hiring decisions to the principal. No one is better positioned to make critical personnel judgments, and no one should care more that effective teachers are hired—and even more so now, as schools are held more strictly to account for their results.

In addition to inviting states to be imaginative in defining “fully certified” teachers, the No Child Left Behind Act provides new flexibility on subject-matter skills. The law states that a teacher may demonstrate this knowledge by having a degree in the subject or by passing a subject-matter test. Many states insist that teachers’ subject-matter knowledge be reflected in specific coursework, but don’t offer the flexibility of “testing out” of the coursework requirement. This step is key to breaking down barriers that keep manifestly qualified people—retired engineers who would choose to be math teachers, for example—out of the classroom.

Just as different backgrounds, credentials, and life experiences draw people to teaching, so states must experiment with diverse routes to certification.

Many states are opting for the Praxis II test to confirm subject-matter knowledge. Certainly it’s the best known test for teachers. Yet Praxis II is based on dubious education standards that permit the hiring of teachers with only scant subject knowledge. States could take a stronger stand on teacher quality by asking candidates to pass the same tests that universities expect incoming students to take, such as the SAT-II or Advanced Placement exams. Or they could employ the new American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence exams, which will be launched in the autumn. These tests are specifically designed to screen teachers in both subject matter and professional teaching knowledge. The Department of Education has been particularly supportive of this option.

Nobody suggests that every school system or state should follow the same approach to full certification. There is no need to scrap programs already producing good teachers. Just as different backgrounds, credentials, and life experiences draw people to teaching, so states must experiment with diverse routes to certification. The long-term goal must be to replace a broken, inequitable system that results in underserved students with one that significantly broadens the pool of prospective applicants.

Kate Walsh is the executive director of the National Council on Teacher Quality, located in Washington.


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