Federal Opinion

Improving Teacher Quality: Better Luck Next Time

By Michael J. Petrilli — August 30, 2005 8 min read
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You might as well call it Christmas in August: The last few weeks before the start of school have seen a blizzard of activity for human-resources and personnel departments in school systems across the land. After all, the deadline for the No Child Left Behind Act’s “highly qualified teachers” requirement is only nine short months away. District officials are doing all they can to hire new teachers with the necessary credentials.

But for all the hurrying and scurrying, will the nation’s teaching force really be that much stronger in June 2006 than in January 2002, when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law? Will we have made much progress in closing the “teacher-quality gap,” whereby poor and minority students are much more likely to suffer through inexperienced or out-of-field teachers? The truth is: probably not.

What happened to the great hopes and lofty rhetoric of putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006? This is the tale of a policy initiative that was strangled in the cradle. Let’s start from the beginning.

As the No Child Left Behind legislation wound its way through Congress in 2001, House education committee Chairman John A. Boehner of Ohio gave the committee’s ranking Democrat, George Miller of California, the lead in drafting the law’s teacher-quality provisions. This move was key to ensuring bipartisan support for the measure; it also showed respect for Miller’s strong and long-standing interest in better teachers.

Congressman Miller exemplifies one of the oddities in today’s education politics. A big-government liberal by any definition, he has shown courage in breaking with the teachers’ unions and education schools, as well as impatience with state policies that allow virtually anyone with a pulse to enter the public school classroom.

Miller and his staff worked closely with the Education Trust, the respected liberal advocacy group, to craft provisions that would stiffen requirements for teachers and dramatically strengthen the federal government’s hand, especially in ensuring that poor and minority children have access to good teachers. They had ample cause for concern: One study showed that teachers in high-poverty schools are almost four times more likely to have scored in the lowest quartile on the SAT than teachers in affluent schools.

Miller’s original proposal would have set the same rigorous requirements for all teachers, new and experienced: Everyone would have to possess at least a bachelor’s degree, have full state certification, and demonstrate subject-matter mastery by either earning a major in his or her teaching field or passing a test in its content.

But requiring veteran teachers to pass a test was anathema to the National Education Association, which vigorously lobbied Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to ax that mandate from the bill. (You can understand why. When Pennsylvania tested its middle school teachers a few years ago, almost a quarter of them failed the exam, as did half of those in Philadelphia.) Hence, the final “highly qualified teachers” provision of the law was born from conflict—not conflict between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives, but between two of the most liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill.

—Gregory Ferrard


The final requirements for new teachers were far from perfect. The law’s mandate that they possess “full state certification” strengthened the grip of education schools. As Education Week reported this past June, even a massive research synthesis by the American Educational Research Association—an organization mostly of education school professors—found scant evidence of the value of traditional teacher training (“Review Panel Turns Up Little Evidence to Back Teacher Ed. Practices,” June 22, 2005). But the rules for new teachers at least showed some promise: Middle and high school candidates would have to pass a test or have a major in each subject they taught, while new elementary teachers would have to pass an exam covering the areas of the primary school curriculum.

After the NEA and Sen. Kennedy were finished with them, however, the final rules for veteran teachers were a joke. Rather than forcing veterans to sit for an exam or go back to school for more college credits, Congress created a third option: the “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSSE.

As the National Council on Teacher Quality has shown, HOUSSE in most states is a flimsy edifice indeed, really just an elaborate paper exercise. Teachers get points for serving on curriculum committees, attending conferences, even supervising student-teachers. According to Stanford University political scientist Terry M. Moe, “the HOUSSE provisions create a loophole big enough to drive 3 million veteran teachers through”—exactly the NEA’s intention from the beginning.

Thus, for veteran teachers, the “highly qualified” provision was a public-policy bust, causing scant change and virtually no improvement in the teacher workforce. Worse yet, it was also a political disaster. Here’s why. In the first few years of No Child Left Behind implementation, while states worked out the kinks in their HOUSSE systems, individuals who hadn’t taken a teacher test, or who lacked majors in their fields, were caught in purgatory, technically not “highly qualified.” Surely, once the HOUSSE procedures were in place, they would easily qualify—for better or worse—but for many teachers, their first introduction to the No Child Left Behind law was a notice from their schools that the federal government had deemed them lacking. Then, because of another Miller-Education Trust idea—the “parents’ right to know” provision—schools were required to send letters home explaining that their beloved children were being taught by people who weren’t yet “highly qualified.”

It’s hard to imagine a surer strategy for setting the nation’s teachers against the new law. They, of course, felt personally affronted. Some threatened to retire, or sue. Others pledged revenge. Certainly some of these hundreds of thousands of “not yet highly qualified” teachers contacted their friends or relatives in the nation’s statehouses, stoking the No Child Left Behind backlash. Thus, this provision not only failed to improve teacher quality, it also managed to create strong political opposition to the law from the get-go. Note to Rep. Miller and the Education Trust: In hindsight, we would have been better off with no new requirements for veteran teachers than these requirements.

Will this story have a happy ending? Thankfully, reformers will have another shot at making good on the promise of “highly qualified teachers” when the No Child Left Behind legislation comes up for renewal in 2007. The first order of business should be to close the HOUSSE loophole to ensure that veteran teachers demonstrate their subject-matter knowledge in ways that are valid: passing a rigorous test or earning a college major in the field. The experience of paraprofessionals is instructive here. They, too, must meet new requirements under the law—namely, that they amass enough college credits for an associate’s degree or, alternatively, pass a rigorous exam. Congress did not choose to offer a HOUSSE-style loophole for them. So they have responded to the mandate in ways that are overwhelmingly positive: going back to school, studying for the test. Veteran teachers would meet the challenge, too, if HOUSSE were no longer an option.

In hindsight, we would have been better off with <i>no</i> new requirements for veteran teachers than <i>these</i> requirements.

But there’s an even better way to address the teacher-quality gap head-on, and it would only take a stroke of the policy pen. One section of the No Child Left Behind law requires that Title I schools receive resources “comparable” to those of non-Title I schools, including similarly rigorous curricula and similarly credentialed teachers. This makes sense: Federal Title I dollars are meant to be extra, on top of what needy schools already receive from state and local sources. Yet the law specifically states that, when considering whether schools do in fact receive comparable resources, teachers’ years of experience cannot be considered. In other words, as long as two schools have the same number of certified teachers, they are considered to have equivalent resources, even if one has all 20-year veterans (with $50,000 salaries) and another has all rookies (with $25,000 salaries). Never mind that research has shown that most brand-new teachers struggle, and often fail, at boosting student achievement in their first two years. Under current law, districts can send all of the newbies to poor schools serving the neediest kids, and still be in compliance. In fact, as both the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Education Trust-West have recently shown, many districts do exactly this; according to a brand-new report by Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill, payroll differences result in funding gaps of several hundred dollars per pupil for poor schools in cities like Houston, Austin, and Denver. (“Study: District Budget Practices Can Siphon Title I Aid From Poor,” this issue.)

Were Congress to scratch just this one sentence (specifically, Section 1120A(c)(2)(B)—look it up!), virtually every school district would have to ensure that all of its Title I schools had teachers with similar years of experience as those in its other schools. Districts would be forced to end the practice of “seniority bumping,” whereby experienced teachers flock to more affluent areas at the first opening; they also might consider “hardship pay” for teachers to come to the needier schools. But whatever it took, it would be the best gift our needy students could get—access to experienced teachers. Such a present would make it feel like Christmas all year long.


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