Special Report

‘Qualified’ Teachers: A Victory on Paper?

By Bess Keller — December 06, 2004 7 min read
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When the deadline for outfitting every public school classroom with a “highly qualified” teacher rolls around at the end of the 2005-06 school year, many states are likely to claim they’ve met it. But the larger question is whether anything will be much different from three years ago, before that standard in the No Child Left Behind Act kicked in.

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Taking Root

U.S. Department of Education officials and other proponents of the federal law contend it is making the national teacher corps stronger. Others are not so sure.

“I think on paper we will look like we are more qualified than we were before, and maybe we will be,” said Deborah A. Kasak, the director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, which represents groups concerned with education at that level of schooling.



“‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers.”

“Alternative Qualifications.”

“Testing Over Time.”

Ms. Kasak’s view represents a certain ambivalence among educators and experts, who generally applaud the aim of the teacher-quality provision and at least some of the efforts made to reach the goal it sets.

But many also charge that the law’s narrow definition of teacher quality—it emphasizes teachers’ knowledge of their subjects rather than teaching methods—or problems with its implementation limit serious improvement, especially in schools serving mainly poor and minority children.

Since Congress passed the law in late 2001, states have been busy shaping policies to bolster the federal requirements, building data systems that can track progress toward the goal, and reaching out to districts, which are on the front line of ensuring that teachers are well qualified.

All Over the Map

Nonetheless, “states are at different points in their implementation efforts,” said Carolyn Snowbarger, who directs the Education Department’s Teacher-to-Teacher Program, which helps teachers improve their practice through in-person and online courses while telling them about the federal law.

Still, Ms. Snowbarger added, she expected all the states to reach the goal by the deadline.

To meet the “highly qualified” standard, each teacher of a core subject must hold a bachelor’s degree and a standard teaching license from the state, as well as demonstrate knowledge of the subject taught. New teachers must do that by taking and passing tests in the subjects they teach or completing college majors in them. Teachers who were in the classroom two years ago, soon after the federal law was enacted, may go those routes or take alternative ones devised by their states within federal guidelines. About 40 states now offer such alternatives.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia currently require their high school teachers to pass subject-matter tests before they can be licensed, and 24 make the same demand of middle school teachers. Of the 44 states and the District that have approved streamlined routes for some aspiring teachers, 33 call for candidates to show subject-matter expertise before entering the classroom.

All those numbers were up slightly this school year from 2003-04, indicating slow but steady growth in the states’ attention to subject mastery, according to the Education Week Research Center. Such mastery is often seen as undervalued in traditional teacher-preparation programs.

States have also been beefing up their public school-by-school reporting of teacher qualifications, as mandated by the federal law. Parents will press for better-qualified teachers, the thinking goes, when they see a faculty’s shortcomings.

Finally, states continue to clamp down directly on out-of-field teaching, which many observers blame for nonexpert teachers, and on substandard licenses, though more than two dozen states still have emergency certificates on their books, according to the Education Commission of the States. Michigan has been reducing the number of emergency teaching permits it will approve by 30 percent annually to achieve compliance with the teacher-quality provision by the deadline. The goal is to phase out emergency permits, a step California is also taking. Nevada will bar out-of-field teaching in schools that receive federal Title I anti-poverty money beginning next summer, a move designed to help those schools fend off the practice.

Rosy Portraits

Gauging progress has been difficult because the states have provided only one set of qualified-teacher figures so far, although a second set is due in December 2004.

In reporting to the federal government as part of their applications for federal aid under the No Child Left Behind Act in September 2003, states painted generally rosy portraits of teacher qualifications in the previous school year. Not only did 33 states say that at least four out of five classes in the core subjects were taught by highly qualified instructors, but almost as many claimed that their high-poverty schools closely resembled the others in that regard.

Experts sharply questioned the numbers and especially the lack of discrepancy between high- and low-poverty schools, while federal education officials put strings on their money related to setting up adequate data systems for teacher quality.

Almost certainly the data expected this year will be more reliable and show advances. Virginia, for example, has already reported that the percentage of its classes not taught by highly qualified teachers dropped by two-thirds, from 16.5 percent in 2002-03 to 5.5 percent in 2003-04. In high-poverty schools, which often have trouble attracting and keeping high-caliber teachers, the reduction for the same period was similarly dramatic—from 22.9 percent to 7.8 percent.

Yet, as observers point out, “highly qualified” status often hinges on state licensing and testing requirements that vary in rigor or, in the case of veteran teachers who want to avoid a test, on alternative means of proving subject-matter mastery that also vary widely. Worse, states can alter their licensing standards or alternative means to ensure that the goal is met without any essential changes in how well teachers are prepared, recruited, supported—or challenged.

“I think states will figure out clever ways to make teachers on [license] waivers provisionally qualified” under the federal law, said Michael A. Allen, the director for teacher quality at the Education Commission of the States, a bipartisan policy organization in Denver. “We all know states are going to game this.”

As a result, critics say, the long-standing problem of getting and keeping able teachers in the hardest- to-staff schools may be papered over. When the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, a research and advocacy group in Chapel Hill, N.C., looked at high-poverty schools in four Southern states, it found that even with extra money available through the federal law, district leaders struggled to compete in the teacher labor market.

“There is a need for dramatic new investments,” argued Barnett Berry, the president of the center. “But even when money is there, administrators may not know how to use it effectively,” he said, relying on signing bonuses, for instance, while ignoring the too-heavy workloads and the poor school leadership that drive teachers away.

Ross L. Wiener, the policy director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates higher educational standards for poor and minority children, calls it particularly disappointing that the law’s requirement for schools receiving federal anti-poverty money to hire only highly qualified teachers from fall 2002 onward has for the most part not resulted in districts’ giving priority to those schools. Nor have states “owned up” to the responsibility set forth in the law to spread qualified and experienced teachers equally among schools, Mr. Wiener said, contending further that the Education Department has not pressed the point.

In response, Education Department officials pointed out that states are allowed to direct federal money to schools that have been hard to staff, using it to pay for training or to raise salaries, for instance. The department may also require changes in the way the states are putting the federal law into effect, the officials said.

Still, some administrators contend that the teacher-quality provision is working well enough as is. David Long, the schools superintendent for Riverside County, Calif., believes it is having the desired effect in his regional district, where a significant commitment has been made.

Mr. Long said the district, which enrolls 370,000 students and includes 23 local districts, has expanded its capacity to track teachers’ credentials, connected hundreds of teachers with the workshops and college courses they need to meet the mandated qualifications, and tried to alleviate the anxiety that might prompt teachers to quit in the face of the new requirements.

He does not expect more than the usual teacher turnover as the 2006 deadline approaches, and he is confident that teachers now in the classroom have honed their abilities.

“What is being set in place is a master plan for highly qualified teachers,” Mr. Long said. “When we pay close attention to something, when we have a plan for something, it improves.”

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