Study Casts Doubt on Value of ‘Highly Qualified’ Status

By Linda Jacobson — April 03, 2007 5 min read

The quality of instruction in elementary classrooms has little to do with whether teachers have the credentials that meet their states’ definitions of “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act, a federally sponsored study suggests.

Detailed observations of 5th graders in 20 states show that students in classrooms overseen by teachers labeled as highly qualified spent most of their time in whole-group or individual “seatwork,” focused on basic skills rather than problem-solving activities, and may or may not have received emotional and instructional support from their teachers.

“This pattern of instruction appears inconsistent with aims to add depth to students’ understanding, particularly in mathematics and science,” write the authors of the study, led by Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “Teachers met credentialing standards, but their classrooms, even if emotionally positive, were mediocre in terms of quality of instructional support.”

The study—done under the auspices of the federal government’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, or NICHD—measures the quality of instruction under a system designed by Mr. Pianta. The findings are likely to provide ammunition for critics of the current system of teacher credentialing.

“Having a license to teach doesn’t really make you a good teacher,” said Robert J. Yinger, the research director of the Teacher Quality Partnership, a Cincinnati-based study focusing on the preparation and ongoing support of Ohio’s teaching workforce. He is a former dean of education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

A teaching certificate, Mr. Yinger said, represents what a license does in other fields—minimum qualifications and a promise to “do no harm” in the classroom.

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The study is the latest contribution from the NICHD’s long-running Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Launched in 1991 with more than 1,300 newborns, the study has also yielded data on the effects and quality of different child-care and preschool settings.

Now that the children—roughly 1,000 from the original sample—have completed several years of school, the project has become a source of information on the classroom environment.

The 5th graders in the sample were spread out over 20 states and attended more than 1,000 schools in more than 400 districts. Researchers are continuing to follow the students, who are now sophomores in high school.

Inconsistent Experiences

Appearing in the March 30 issue of the journal Science, the instruction study shows that children are unlikely to experience the same level of classroom quality across their elementary school years.

It also found that children from middle-class families, who scored high on achievement tests at age 4½, were more likely than those from poor families to be in classrooms with a high “positive emotional or instructional climate.”

Having a teacher who is sensitive, warm, and positive, and who also provides focused instruction, can make a big difference for children who are considered at risk for school failure, according to an earlier study on the same sample of children when they were in 1st grade.

In that study, released in 2005, Mr. Pianta found that when 1st grade teachers provided ongoing feedback to students about their progress, children whose mothers had less than a college degree performed at the same level on student-achievement tests as children with more highly educated mothers. (“Study: Quality of 1st Grade Teachers Plays Key Role,” Sept. 21, 2005.)

But if the less-advantaged children did not receive that same level of attention and instruction, they scored lower than their peers. Similar patterns of success also were found for children with past behavior and school adjustment problems if they received emotional support from their teachers.

“It is troubling that opportunities to learn in classrooms are unrelated to features intended to regulate such opportunities and that students most in need of high-quality instruction are unlikely to experience it consistently,” Mr. Pianta writes.

The sample of students in his study is not considered nationally representative because it is largely made up of middle-class families.

Still, Mr. Pianta writes, the study is significant because it shows that classroom experiences can be “observed reliably in large numbers,” and that the results can complement student test data when measuring the quality of the education system.

While he doesn’t make specific recommendations in his paper, Mr. Pianta says he would like to see such observations become a part of the determination of whether a teacher is considered to be a high-quality educator.

Mr. Yinger argued that the study’s findings highlight the weaknesses of the teacher-credentialing system.

While the NCLB law requires that teachers be “highly qualified,” Mr. Yinger said that the term is “misleading” to the public, leaving parents with the impression that their children’s teachers are exemplary.

The federal law, which holds schools accountable for the academic progress of their students, allows states to determine what is meant by a highly qualified teacher. Some states are more stringent than others.

‘Excellent’ Timing

“I think the timing of this study is excellent,” said Marilyn Errett, the administrator for government relations at California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which licenses teachers. The California state legislature recently directed the agency to review the effectiveness of the state’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program—a two-year process for rookie teachers that is required before they earn their full credential.

Mr. Pianta said that some states have tried to go beyond basic certification and use teacher portfolios, which are similar to the kind of evidence of effectiveness that is gathered as part of the process for earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. New Mexico looks at a portfolio of teaching plans and other factors in weighing its teacher qualifications. (“Rigor Disputed In Standards For Teachers,” Jan. 14, 2004.)

But Mr. Yinger said those efforts haven’t gone very far.

“If we really want to deal with the issue of quality teaching,” he said, “we’ve got to get serious about some more rigorous way of looking at teacher performance.”

At the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, the Washington-based organization that awards certificates based on a teacher-candidate’s performance on written tests, Mr. Pianta’s observation tool—the Classroom Assessment Scoring System—is being used as part of a pilot study to determine who should earn the organization’s new Master Teacher credential.

“There are so many aspects of being a teacher that go beyond a kid’s test score,” said Josh Boots, the group’s director of development and evaluation.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Study Casts Doubt on Value of ‘Highly Qualified’ Status


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