The academics responsible for training the nation’s teaching corps fear a new federal law demanding that all K-12 teachers who serve poor children be “highly qualified” may actually backfire and lower standards for educators.
The concept is a good one, they say, but the reality is that states must interpret the federal requirement and will do so in a way that suits them best. Many states are facing teacher shortages and, in their desperation to fill classrooms, they could “dumb down” measures such as licensure tests and preservice exams that are supposed to bar easy entry into the field, the teacher-educators warn.
“It is difficult for urban areas to get enough teachers, let alone to meet the ‘highly qualified’ standard,” said Nicholas M. Michelli, the dean of teacher education at the City University of New York, which prepares about 25 percent of New York City’s incoming teachers annually.
“States may change their definitions of licenses,” he said. “They may put a mirror under teachers’ noses and, if it fogs, that means they’re ‘highly qualified.’ ”
Ensuring a competent teaching corps is a central theme of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. President Bush signed the new law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in January.
According to the legislation, starting in September, every new teacher hired to teach core academic subjects in the schools covered by the requirement must be “highly qualified.” All teachers in those schools must meet that standard by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
The provisions apply only to those schools that receive federal aid as part of the Title I program, the flagship education initiative for disadvantaged students.
Core subjects include English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign language, civics and government, economics, the arts, history, and geography.
Proponents of the measure maintain that no state could get away with relaxing standards for teachers because the law requires accountability at many levels. They say it dictates that school districts, states, and the U.S. secretary of education provide annual progress reports on efforts to help educators become “highly qualified.”
Moreover, any state that lowered standards and hired incompetent teachers would likely end up with poor student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, added Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, who was instrumental in crafting the law. Surely that would raise red flags, he said.
The federally sponsored NAEP tests a sampling of students in a number of subjects, he said. State breakdowns are given for some subjects.
Reducing the rigor of teacher-licensure tests would be a “mindless response,” Mr. Miller said before his keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, held in New York City last month.
“We used the term ‘highly qualified,’” he said, “because we’re not convinced the term ‘certified’ implies ... competency.”
‘Cornerstone’ of Education
The aim of the teacher provisions in the new federal law is, in part, to overhaul the way teachers are trained, recruited, inducted into the profession, and nurtured once in the classroom. The law authorizes more than $950 million in federal spending over several years for professional development to improve the work of rookies and veterans alike. A public perception that the teacher workforce, overall, doesn’t measure up helped drive the initiative.
Worry has risen steadily over the years as the news media have published and broadcast stories about prospective teachers’ failing grades on licensure exams pegged to the knowledge expected of a high school student. Teacher-preparation programs have been blamed for what many see as educators’ lack of subject-matter knowledge.
At the same time, a significant shortage of teachers persists in many communities throughout the country and for such subjects as math, science, and technology. Veterans are retiring, but teacher-preparation programs aren’t producing enough graduates to take their place. Districts are scrambling to hire teachers to fill their classrooms; schools are often forced to take instructors with little experience, or to assign educators to teach outside their areas of expertise.
All those issues are compounded in districts that serve disadvantaged children.
“We have made the decision that teachers are the cornerstone of American education,” Rep. Miller said. “We recognize that far too many teachers are not properly trained or qualified to do their jobs. So we provided a substantial increase in money for teacher improvement and flexibility for ways in which the money can be used.”
While Congress provided the money to make some inroads in educating the profession, its “highly qualified” educator terminology has perplexed those charged with preparing such teachers.
Deep within the 1,080- page ESEA, the law’s authors try to put flesh on the definition.
A “highly qualified” K-12 teacher is one who has obtained full state certification or has passed the state licensing exam and holds a license to teach, the law states.
All new hires are considered highly qualified only if they have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and can demonstrate competence in their areas of expertise. Competence may be demonstrated through state exams or, in the case of secondary school teachers, through the completion of an academic major, a graduate degree, coursework equivalent to an undergraduate degree, or advanced certification or credentialing.
The law also specifies that any tests given to elementary, middle, and secondary educators be aligned with “challenging state academic content and student academic-achievement standards and developed in consultation” with educational experts. Moreover, school administrators must also take into consideration the amount of time such teachers have been teaching their academic subjects.
Such definitions assume that states have rigorous licensing procedures, which may not be the case, said David G. Imig, the president of AACTE, which represents 735 teacher-training institutions.
Also, states that do have rigorous competency tests may be willing to ease requirements to ensure that they have enough teachers to meet the demand, he said, even though they know those teachers may not be well- qualified.
“What state boards of education do is going to be critically important because that’s where certification rules are written,” Mr. Imig said. “I’ve already heard that states are beginning to seek and plead for changes.”
States such as California and New York tout tough standards for entry into the profession, but are also contending with particularly high deficits of teachers, said Karen Symms Gallagher, the dean of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“We have 300,000 teachers [in California], and 45,000 are on emergency permits,” she said. “There is going to be big pressure to change what ‘highly qualified’ means.”
Many who train teachers in alternative programs are also worried about educators’ competence. Even though such programs provide new avenues for preparation, their leaders say they want to ensure participants meet the highest grade.
“There’s a difference between lowering barriers to the entry ... and lowering the bar in terms of quality,” said Kevin S. Huffman, the vice president of development and the general counsel for Teach For America, a New York City-based alternative-preparation program. “We feel very strongly that we should—and everyone else should—be very selective in choosing only the best people.”
Such concerns are needless, said David A. Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education. The Alexandria,Va.-based group represents 650 state board members.
“I can tell you that none of our members has considered lowering the bar,” Mr. Griffith said. “I don’t know how our members are going to address this, but that answer isn’t even remotely acceptable.”
Secretary of Education Rod Paige told teacher-educators at the Feb. 23-26 AACTE meeting in New York that his department and members of Congress will play watchdog to make sure no states yield to the temptation to cut corners.
But the audience buzzed when Mr. Paige told them that “highly qualified” teachers may not be required to be certified—an apparent contradiction of the law. No proposed federal regulations or guidelines have yet been put forth on carrying out the teacher-quality requirements.
The Education Department could not be reached for comment.
“If the federal government is willing to hold the line on the issue of ‘highly qualified’ teachers in every classroom, then they have done more for education than they have since the 1960s,” said Alfonzo Thurman, the dean of the education school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Trainers Fear a Backfire From New ESEA