Senators Seek ‘Highly Qualified’ Refinements

By Bess Keller — March 13, 2007 3 min read
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Lawmakers and educators alike showed interest here last week in supplementing the federal requirement for teachers to be “highly qualified” with ways of tagging and rewarding teachers who are also demonstrably effective.

At a hearing on the teacher-quality provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, senators asked eight experts from different walks of education how to tackle the gap in teacher quality between high- and low-poverty schools.

“I don’t think any of us minimize the challenge and difficulty of attracting people into underserved areas,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said.

Questions of teacher quality, especially as they affect the drive to close achievement gaps and to strengthen mathematics and science teaching generally, are expected to draw attention when Congress reauthorizes the NCLB legislation, scheduled for this year.

Under the 5-year-old law, all teachers of core subjects are supposed to be “highly qualified,” meaning they hold a standard state teaching license and have demonstrated knowledge of the subjects they teach. States are also held responsible for ensuring that until that standard is met, high-poverty schools fare no worse in teacher qualifications than low-poverty ones.

Amy Wilkens, speaking for the Education Trust, a nonprofit Washington-based advocacy group that was influential in shaping the law, told the panel that Congress’ intention to finance efforts to recruit and retain teachers for high-poverty schools had been undermined. She faulted the Department of Education for lax enforcement, states for their resistance, and a flaw in the statute.

The law should state clearly, she said, that districts have met the measure’s fair-funding requirement only when school budgets take into account the real costs of teacher salaries. In most districts, schools with a more experienced and thus higher-paid faculty are given the same nonsalary budget allotments as schools with less-experienced teachers, all else being equal. Federal anti-poverty money in the form of Title I grants help make up the difference in resources rather than providing additional money to the schools with the most disadvantaged students, according to the group.

“The current system represents a theft from Title I kids,” Ms. Wilkens said.

Several of those who testified stressed that it takes time and professional collaboration to make teachers reach their personal best at each stage of their careers.

Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond, a nationally recognized advocate of the teaching profession and an education professor at Stanford University, recommended that states support mentors for every beginning teacher and that all teachers be provided with 10 to 15 hours a week to work with one another.

More Incentives Sought

Sen. Lamar Alexander

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., noted that efforts two decades ago to pay teachers more for doing their jobs exceptionally well had foundered in part because of difficulties measuring an individual teacher’s effect on students’ achievement. He asked the panel whether there was a consensus now around such measurements.

In response, William L. Sanders, a statistician at the private SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., who pioneered a statistical approach for measuring teachers’ contributions to student academic growth, said requests for his analyses and others of its ilk have been growing at a fast clip.

But even with more reliable ways of identifying skilled teachers and money to pay them, he cautioned, the challenge of getting the best teachers in the schools that need them most remains.

The panelists focused mostly on policies aimed at reducing turnover and helping teachers get better where they are. In addition to extra pay for raising student test scores or winning advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, incentives to stay could include bonuses for teaching in a low-performing school, smaller class sizes, and intensive professional development. Paying educators more for teaching in shortage subjects such as math, science, and special education was also a popular idea.

Solutions that include firing teachers and finding promising replacements hardly figured in the discussion.

The Commission on No Child Left Behind, a private panel formed by the Aspen Institute, has endorsed such an approach.

Several witnesses seemed to shrink from that more punitive policy, warning that teachers are tired of “jumping through” paperwork hoops and being what they perceive as shut out of the teacher-quality discussion.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Senators Seek ‘Highly Qualified’ Refinements


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