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Education Letter to the Editor

We Can’t Legislate Teacher Quality

September 13, 2005 2 min read

To the Editor:

Michael J. Petrilli argues that the No Child Left Behind Act will fail to improve teacher quality in our nation’s public schools because it was passed with watered-down provisions for ensuring that veteran teachers are “highly qualified” (“Improving Teacher Quality: Better Luck Next Time,” Commentary, Aug. 31, 2005).

Mr. Petrilli misses the point. The details of the No Child Left Behind law, its requirements for new teachers vs. older teachers, and so on, are irrelevant. You cannot legislate truly qualified teachers into the classroom, because the incentives for top-flight individuals to teach are simply not there.

If you have lax requirements, you get poor teachers (the status quo). On the other hand, if you legislate strict requirements, you don’t get a highly qualified teaching force, but rather a huge shortage of teachers.

Can we really expect our best and brightest to enter the profession and face a room full of needy kids for $25,000 a year, or maybe $50,000 after 20 years of service? While there are many wonderful, dedicated public school teachers out there, our current incentives have produced a teaching force that is woefully inadequate, and no act of Congress will remediate this.

My own experience is a classic example of why Mr. Petrilli’s argument is a red herring. I left a job in industry to teach in the public schools, taking a huge pay cut in the process. I worked for two years on an emergency credential.

As an engineer, I was certainly qualified to teach math, and I passed my content-area tests with flying colors. But the federal No Child Left Behind law effectively eliminated emergency credentials, so to remain a public school teacher I would have had to get a teaching credential by going to school at night and on weekends for two years while working full time at my high school.

I might have been able to afford the time and money to do that if my salary had been higher. But it wasn’t, so I became a statistic. I left for a private school. They don’t require credentials and often pay better.

What’s the formula for getting highly qualified teachers into public schools? It’s simple. Pay them better, give them smaller classes, and toughen tenure requirements. If new teachers started at $50,000, increased to $90,000 after 15 years, and had to prove themselves for seven years, instead of two, to get tenure, our nation’s teaching corps would improve immeasurably, as good candidates competed for these jobs.

Instead, the politicians and pundits argue and place blame while our kids are very much left behind.

David H. Goldbrenner

San Francisco, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as We Can’t Legislate Teacher Quality