Federal

States Making Some Gains in Teacher Quality, Study Says

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 22, 2004 3 min read
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States have been making some progress over the past three years in improving teacher quality to meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, says a new federal report. But many states, it says, still have work to do to smooth paths to certifi cation, raise academic-content standards for teachers, and get more highly qualified teachers into the hardest-to-staff schools.

The U.S. Department of Education quietly released the secretary’s third annual report to Congress on teacher quality last week while the Bush administration was lauding its education accomplishments at the Republican National Convention in New York City. (“Bush to Seek Accountability in High School,” this issue.)

“The Secretary’s Third Annual Report on Teacher Quality,” is available online from the Department of Education. (Full report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The document highlights model initiatives for improving teacher quality and outlines the expanded services the agency has been offering to states to help them meet the demands of the legislation.

“The report has a lot of positive things to say about teacher quality, and it highlights a lot of the best practices going on in the states,” said René Islas, a special assistant to Secretary of Edu cation Rod Paige. “We have some innovative programs that are helping states accomplish the vision of No Child Left Behind of improved student achievement by making sure teachers are highly qualified,” he said.

Many states, for example, have raised licensing standards for teachers, particularly in the requirements for showing content knowledge, according to the report. But assessments designed to gauge that knowledge, it says, generally set cutoff scores too low, allowing states to weed out only the least-qualified candidates.

This year’s report did not try to quantify the number of teachers adequately qualified for their jobs, though the No Child Left Behind Act requires all public school teachers of core courses to meet a “highly qualified” standard by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Data estimates in last year’s report were criticized as flawed. (See “Many Teachers Missing ‘Highly Qualified’ Mark,” Aug. 6, 2003.)

Nonetheless, states are obligated, in exchange for federal aid, to calculate the proportion of classes taught by such teachers. Most states did so last year, reporting to the Education Department 2002-03 figures that ranged widely and were roundly questioned. New figures were due to the department last week.

No Relief From Waivers

One indicator the report tracks is the proportion of teachers in each state working under waivers as they make progress toward meeting certification requirements. About 6 percent, or 180,000, of the nation’s teachers were under waivers during the 2002-03 school year. That number has been relatively constant for the past three years.

North Carolina, which has been struggling with a teacher shortage, reported that nearly 16 percent of its teachers had waivers that year, compared with just 1 percent or less in Oklahoma and the District of Columbia.

The report points to increased federal support for states in meeting the law’s standards for teachers, including workshops and discussions sponsored by the Education Department.

The department has also provided some flexibility in meeting requirements for some teachers—for example, those in small, rural schools and those teaching in several science areas. The report also identifies 25 teacher-preparation programs that are deemed low-performing or are at risk of being designated as such.

Missing Data?

Some experts in the teaching field say much is missing from the report that would allow a fuller picture of the quality of the teacher corps.

“We have yet to see any of [the reports] pay any attention to the importance of teacher salaries and working conditions that are so critical to recruiting, preparing, supporting, and retaining our very best teachers,” said Barnett Berry, the president of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, based in Chapel Hill, N.C. He added that he would like the report to suggest “actionable steps” for ensuring that all teachers are well-qualified.

Those issues are not addressed, Mr. Islas said, because the report is limited to the data Congress specifically requested.

But states are clearly making headway, he said. “This report, as compared to last year, shows that states are starting to implement the highly-qualified-teacher provisions,” Mr. Islas said.

Eight states added a requirement last year for teachers to have bachelor’s degrees in their content areas. A dozen states and the District of Columbia still do not have such a standard, and 19 do not assess prospective teachers on their knowledge of the subjects they teach.

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