Actual Measure of ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers Just Beginning to Come to Light Across Nation

By Bess Keller — December 13, 2005 9 min read
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If the No Child Left Behind law’s prescription for “highly qualified” teachers had worked out the way it appears on paper, states would have gotten a good look at how far they had to go as far back as 2003. Then, as envisioned by Congress’ 2001 overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they would have marched steadily toward the goal of outfitting each core-subject classroom with a teacher who meets the NCLB standard by the end of this school year.

An Education Week Special Pullout Section: A Progress Report on the No Child Left Behind Act
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Actual Measure of ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers Just Beginning to Come to Light Across Nation
:: Table: Where Are the ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers? [PDF]
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Instead, many officials and observers say, the first round of data from states on the proportion of classes taught by highly qualified teachers was largely guesswork, and the second round was not much better. Only the statistics due Jan. 1 will tell a reliable story, officials in several states say.

“Every year, it’s getting better,” ventured Steven Olson, who is in charge of the teacher-qualification figures for the Rhode Island education department. “I’m very comfortable with it this year,” he said of the data’s reliability.

Keith Rheault, the state schools chief in Nevada, reports similar progress. “I can document all our [2004-05] numbers,” he said, unlike those in the preceding two years.

Even with the improvement, the 2004-05 numbers are expected to remain inaccurate in at least some states. A report ordered by Congress and released last month found that “several limitations on the quality and precision of state-reported data make it difficult” to get good figures.

In fact, nine states don’t even collect data on the percentage of core academic classes taught by highly qualified teachers, which is required by the U.S. Department of Education. Instead, they report the data by teachers or full-time equivalencies. States have had to submit highly qualified statistics to federal officials as part of their applications for federal education aid. The figures for the 2004-05 school year are not due until Jan. 1, but 22 states and the District of Columbia had provided them to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center by mid-November. Eighteen other states provided 2003-04 data.

See Also

View the accompanying table, “Where Are the ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers?”
PDF version | Excel version

Of the 22 states and the District with 2004-05 data, 14 reported that at least nine out of 10 classes in their schools were taught by highly qualified teachers that year. The number rises to 25 if the states with 2003-04 data are included. Most states posted improvements compared with the statistics submitted to the U.S. Department of Education three years ago.

In addition to mandating a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, the law calls on states to ensure that students in high-poverty schools have the same access to highly qualified teachers as do other students. Twelve of the 22 states and the District with 2004-05 data report that the percentage of classes in high-poverty schools taught by highly qualified teachers is better than or within 2 percentage points of the statewide figure. When states with 2003-04 data are included, 20 report the percentage of classes taught by highly qualified teachers in high-poverty schools is better than or close to the statewide average.

Given the state of data collection over the past three years, it is hard to know what the improved numbers represent, state officials say. On the one hand, districts and states have been making efforts to strengthen their teacher corps. On the other, what it takes for a veteran teacher to be deemed highly qualified has not been clear in some states until very recently. Perhaps the higher numbers show that more teachers who already had the background to be considered highly qualified have at last been counted.

More Oversight

Many advocates of raising teacher quality say that federal officials have failed to push the law’s teacher-quality agenda sufficiently and left states without the guidance or support they needed to do a better job.

Some also charge that what they see as the law’s narrow definition of teacher quality—it emphasizes knowledge of subject matter over classroom skill—limits serious improvement even without implementation problems.

Knowing What You Teach

According to the No Child Left Behind law, by the end of this school year, new teachers of core academic subjects must demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they teach by passing subject-knowledge tests or by completing subject-area majors. Almost every state now has one of those requirements in place.


*Click image to enlarge

Note: California and North Carolina require high school teachers to take either a subject-knowledge test or obtain a major. They receive credit in the map for requiring a test.

SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2005

To meet the “highly qualified” standard, each teacher of a core subject must have a standard license from the state and demonstrate knowledge of the subject taught. New teachers have to do that by taking and passing tests in the subjects they teach or completing college majors in them. Teachers who were in the classroom three years ago, soon after the federal law was enacted, may go those routes or take an alternative one devised by their states within federal guidelines. Almost all the states now offer such alternatives, though they vary considerably in their requirements.

Federal officials say that their oversight of teacher quality has stepped up over the past year.

“We’ve monitored 35 states thus far, providing them with a lot of guidance,” said René Islas, a special assistant for teacher quality in the Education Department. “We at the department are very confident that states have the capacity to report accurate data … due at the beginning of the year.”

In an Oct. 21 letter, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings shifted away from a focus on the looming deadline and emphasized the need for progress. She said that states that want a year’s reprieve from the threat of losing federal funds will have to show evidence they have been building the systems needed to take responsibility for the quality of their teaching forces. The deal also requires states to map out how they intend to move forward and subject their plans to the scrutiny of federal officials.

“If they haven’t been attracting teachers to hard-to-staff schools,” Mr. Islas said by way of example, “we’ll want to see that they have made efforts to provide incentives to go there.”

The new tack has heartened some critics of the Education Department’s handling of the NCLB law’s teacher-quality provisions, such as Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for poor and minority students. He said that the threat of punishments for not meeting the deadline had helped create an “unfortunate dynamic” that made honest and accurate information a liability.

“You’d hope honest information would lead to talks with the legislature and higher education institutions, with state school officials saying here’s what we need to bridge the gaps,” Mr. Wiener said.

Instead, low numbers tended to get the wrong kind of attention from the news media and lawmakers, he said. And once a state had posted high numbers, a downward revision was hard, he added.

Mr. Rheault, the Nevada superintendent, said that legislators in his state had wanted explanations for the low teacher-quality numbers. Seventy-one percent of Nevada’s classes overall, and just 65 percent of its classes in high-poverty schools, were taught by highly qualified teachers last year, according to the state’s figures. Those proportions were up slightly over the previous two years.

With more than two-thirds of Nevada’s new teachers coming from out of state, districts have problems making sure the recruits have passed the state’s multisubject test required for highly qualified status, Mr. Rheault said.

In Delaware, education officials don’t expect to be able to produce teacher-quality figures for classes until the end of this school year.

“We have tried to meet all the reporting requirements we can,” said Robin Taylor, the associate superintendent for assessment and accountability. “But we have limited resources in terms of [money] and personnel and programming.”

Initially, some Delaware districts told the state that 100 percent of their classes were taught by highly qualified teachers. “I knew that wasn’t right,” Ms. Taylor said. The state now has a process for verifying such data.

Complicated Effects

Education Department officials cited four states’ teacher-quality data systems as particularly sound: Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, and Ohio.

In Ohio, state officials said they benefited from an extensive data system already in place. “We were able to build the high-quality-teacher data on top of that,” said Marilyn B. Troyer, the associate superintendent for teacher quality. Ohio reported that 82 percent of classes overall and 78 percent of classes in high-poverty schools were taught by highly qualified teachers in the 2002-03 school year. Those proportions had risen to 93 percent and 85 percent, respectively, last year. “I still don’t anticipate reaching 100 percent by the end of this school year,” she said.

Who is 'Highly Qualified'?

The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to report the percent of classes taught by “highly qualified” teachers, perhaps the best measure since teachers can satisfy that requirement for some subjects they teach but not others. Twenty-eight states, as shown below, however, report the percent of highly qualified teachers more generally. Nine of those 28 states report only the more general measure and not whether teachers are highly qualified for each of their assignments or classes.


*Click image to enlarge

SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2005

She said she thought that the state’s numbers had been helped by schools’ greater care in assigning teachers to classes and by new professional-development opportunities that had helped teachers win highly qualified status. A just-launched pilot program that offers bonuses to some teachers working in shortage fields in high-poverty schools might help shrink Ohio’s teacher-quality gap, Ms. Troyer said.

Across the country this year, districts are grappling with the effects of the nearly 4-year-old federal law. They are also seeing its complications play out in schools and classrooms.

Stephen C. Lewis, the director of human resources for the 12,000-student Gresham-Barlow district near Portland, Ore., said that district administrators met this fall with all 19 principals, pinpointing for them where each of their faculty members stood in meeting the teacher requirements. Of the 660 teachers, fewer than 50 were still in the process of getting highly qualified status—most at the middle school level, according to Mr. Lewis. But a handful had yet to get in their initial paperwork so that their status could be officially determined, he said.

Because of the challenges the law poses for middle schools, a teaching “block” combining English and history might be done away with in the Gresham-Barlow system. The block arrangement requires teachers to be highly qualified in both subjects—a difficult task given that many hold elementary certification, which is not enough to show subject mastery in either field.

Mr. Lewis said he suspected that some teachers who were taking courses to gain highly qualified status knew more than the college instructors who taught them. But he cited the district’s small high school for students who weren’t fitting in elsewhere as a success story. “We had to work really hard to get highly qualified staff there,” he said, because typically, the teachers are responsible for more than one subject. As a result of that effort, he said, “I’m sure the faculty is better.”


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