States Receive Poor Marks for Teacher-Quality Standards

By Bess Keller — April 21, 2004 3 min read

On a first-ever report card of its kind, 13 out of 20 states earned a grade of C or lower for the quality of the standards they have set to assess whether teachers now in the classroom have adequate knowledge of subjects they teach.

“Necessary and Insufficient: Resisting a Full Measure of Teacher Quality,” is available online from the National Council on Teacher Quality. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The report from the National Council on Teacher Quality sees the D-plus average of the 20 grades as one more sign that many states are reluctant to deal with the content part of the teacher-quality equation. But the paper also puts some of the blame on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which thrust on states the politically charged task of designing ways to hold experienced teachers to the same content-knowledge standard as new ones.

The results, according to the report, range from standards that set an unambiguous bar—mostly by insisting on coursework similar in amount to that required for new teachers—to ones that make use of teacher evaluations neither designed for nor strong in assessing academic-content knowledge.

“This is such a unique and wonderful opportunity to take on a very serious problem,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the Washington-based council. “But right now, all I can conclude is that … the chance in the majority of states that the [experienced] teachers who are clearly weak will be identified and helped is very low.”

The council is a prominent backer of alternative routes to certification and helped found the controversial American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, which has produced a test that could be used for licensure.

Illinois on Top

To be deemed “highly qualified” under the 2-year-old federal law, teachers must hold a standard license and prove they know the subjects they teach. But states can give teachers who were already in the classroom by the start of 2002 options for demonstrating knowledge that aren’t available to new teachers.

Veteran teachers may, if their states allow, forgo tests or coursework amounting to a major if they pursue the HOUSSE option, for “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation.”

The report examines the variety of pathways that experienced teachers may take to the “highly qualified” designation.

Taking home the single A grade was Illinois, which requires teachers to have passed about eight half-year courses in a content area to be deemed highly qualified under the law.

Oregon, Alabama, Ohio, and Kentucky rated B’s. New Mexico, Oklahoma, Georgia, New Hampshire, Maryland, and North Carolina got C’s. And Tennessee, West Virginia, New York, and Louisiana barely passed with D’s.

Many states in the middle range are instituting systems that award varying numbers of points for professional activities, ranging from writing a textbook to years in the classroom.

Michigan, Virginia, California, and South Carolina flunked, generally for having too many options of insufficient rigor, according to the authors. Idaho drew an “incomplete” because it relies on its certification system alone for guaranteeing that experienced teachers have adequate subject- matter knowledge. Future papers will look at the remaining states.

While states take the brunt of the paper’s criticism, the authors also fault the U.S. Department of Education as doing too little to gain the support of teachers, many of whom have complained that the new requirements are demeaning or insulting.

Law Misunderstood

Raymond J. Simon, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, acknowledged that the law’s provision requiring highly qualified teachers was one that has been widely misunderstood.

“To correct that, [Secretary Rod Paige] has begun a number of outreach efforts,” Mr. Simon said. He added that the department has had and will continue to have “some strong advice where plans are not rigorous enough.”

Meanwhile, the California education official who has overseen the development of that state’s HOUSSE standard, vigorously protested the F that California received in the report. “There’s a clouding political agenda [there], which I think is to degrade any kind of credentialing,” said Jean Treiman, of the state education department’s professional-development division. She defended the state’s requirements, which build on the existing licensing system and do a rigorous, if qualitative, job of testing for subject-matter knowledge, she said.

“You’re pretty exposed as a teacher if you are observed five times on content,” one of the ways teachers can earn points that drew criticism in the report, Ms. Treiman contended.