Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Quality: More Reasons It Deserves Attention

By Diana Pullin — April 28, 2004 11 min read
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We remain, at the start of a perilous and uncertain new century, a nation at risk.

The release in January of the Teaching Commission’s report, “Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action,” presents us with an opportunity to reconsider the importance of teacher quality as a critical variable in the current effort to implement standards-based reform and high-stakes accountability.

The report’s striking title reminds us that although we may no longer suffer the panic of two decades ago, when we faced what some perceived as an educational crisis so severe that it threatened the nation’s security, we remain, at the start of a perilous and uncertain new century, a nation at risk. We’ve experienced two decades of what Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin call the “steady work” of wave after wave of education reform. But a new commitment to that process has been declared in the form of massive and high-stakes legal mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act. And the spotlight has been focused squarely on the teaching profession.

A number of the Teaching Commission’s recommendations echo those of previous reform groups, many of whose members were drawn from the teaching profession and the teacher education community. The stellar lineup of commission members this time around, so dominated by visible leaders of the business community, may call more attention to the current plight of teaching. And for that, we owe the commission members a debt of gratitude.

Few would disagree with their conclusion that improving the quality of teaching is the most important step toward improving elementary and secondary education. Their recommendations include proposals to enhance teacher compensation and performance, to revise preparation models, and to bolster leadership and support for teachers. But certain of the report’s specifics deserve further scrutiny. For it seems that despite the federal call for a stronger evidence base for educational practices, the report has used a weak evidence base to substantiate many of its conclusions and recommendations, relying rather casually on some of the same research used so frequently by critics of the education establishment.

With the attendant complications for teachers’ unions notwithstanding, the commission sets out a bold new emphasis on performance incentives and salary initiatives. Its recommendations seek to break down the long-standing teacher-salary schedule, based on years of service and degrees earned, in favor of differentiated pay for teachers of math, science, special education, or those working in low-performing schools. The cost: an estimated $30 billion annually nationwide. The price tag alone would be frightening, if it weren’t so easy to compare to a few months of military operations and reconstruction contracts in Iraq. The proposed performance incentives have only a limited research base to support their use. And increased reliance on individual teacher evaluations or student test results are fraught with technical and implementation challenges. But the big-ticket price tag for the commission’s reforms is worth considering for several reasons.

Both the harsher critics of the teaching profession, such as Richard Murnane, and the more supportive (but tough-love) commentators like Linda Darling-Hammond, would agree on the need to enhance teacher quality through improved salary systems. They might disagree on how to define teacher quality, and on the utility of particular performance incentives, but they would agree on the need for added resources to enhance teacher pay.

The federal government has taken no position on a topic as fraught with complications as teacher pay. The federal budget for No Child Left Behind Act initiatives leaves little room for any bold new pay initiatives. Yet, teacher-quality initiatives are, in conjunction with increased test use, the cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind requirements for standards-based education reform and accountability. Compliance with the requirements will be a prerequisite for Title I funding. And given the pressures on states for compliance, even local districts with little or no Title I money that wish to continue receiving full access to shrinking pools of discretionary state education monies or federal grant programs will pay increasing attention to No Child Left Behind mandates.

The massive reforms called for in the law set forth a series of requirements for teacher quality, and the U.S. Department of Education’s regulations go a step further in articulating a particular view of teacher quality. Many, if not most, educators would disagree with these standards for teacher quality. But the existence of the federal requirements will create pressures on the system.

One provision of the law, for example, requires information for parents on the qualifications of their children’s teachers. The information is skewed toward the law’s limited notions of defining teacher quality. But among affluent and well-educated families, this type of information will play into the hands of increasingly consumer-oriented, credential-hungry parents who can be expected to aggressively work to enhance their children’s educational opportunity. For those families with less time and fewer resources to pursue such educational opportunity, the disclosures on teacher quality could have more muted impact. But for those concerned with the educational well-being of an entire community, or the nation, information on teacher qualifications can be a useful benchmark for assessing more closely the system’s capacity for attaining education reform and meaningful accountability.

There are other powerful reasons for renewed attention to improving teacher quality. In addition to the new federal pressure to enhance educational outcomes, most states face three other sets of potential legal challenges to their education policies and practices, all of which highlight the importance of teacher quality.

The federal government has taken no position on a topic as fraught with complications as teacher pay.

The mandates in some state constitutions for the provision of adequate educational opportunity and federal constitutional obligations for the provision of a fair opportunity to learn raise the prospect of greater legal scrutiny of how states and local schools ensure the provision of a qualified teaching force. At the same time, state and federal laws governing the provision of services to students with disabilities also require that appropriate education programs and activities be available to those students.

Disability-rights provisions have become the source of complaint for many within schools, as well as for those who are opposed to rights-based legal mandates (even as they may firmly support No Child Left Behind-style accountability mandates). Yet the judicial activity under disability laws related to education is relatively limited, particularly when compared with the total number of students covered by the laws. And few disagree with the ideal of providing an appropriate education for students with disabilities; most of the disagreement is over how to achieve that education. While state and federal disability-rights laws set forth no requirements concerning the quality of teachers necessary to provide an appropriate education, the capability of the teaching force is an increasing area of concern.

The shortage of trained special educators, as well as general education teachers well-prepared to address the needs of students with disabilities, is a significant crisis, noted only in passing by the Teaching Commission. The specialized expertise required and the challenges associated with teaching students with disabilities suggest that the alternate-credential approach to staffing the nation’s schools, so favored by the Bush administration and many states, falls far short when it comes to educating this particularly vulnerable population.

This population is of particular concern because it constitutes a significant proportion of all schoolchildren, particularly those from low-income families, and a disproportionate number of minority and English-learning schoolchildren. The knowledge base for teaching these students and the shortage of individuals qualified in the area suggest the need for more attention to consulting-teacher models, highly trained specialists in special education to work collaboratively with subject-area specialists, and an appropriate salary structure to compensate this technical expertise. Without this, the population of students with disabilities, now singled out for inclusion in testing systems, will increasingly feel that rights to appropriate education have been denied.

In addition to teacher quality’s impact on the meaningful access of students with disabilities to an appropriate education, there is another relevant legal claim arising in many states on behalf of all schoolchildren.

A number of states are in court defending new or ongoing challenges to their state school finance systems. These cases are brought under state constitutional provisions requiring the provision of “adequate,” “thorough and efficient,” “equitable,” or “ample” systems of public elementary and secondary education. The earliest school finance cases focused on equity claims, looking at the comparability of resources available to low-wealth and high-wealth school districts. The more recent school finance cases, however, target the adequacy of educational opportunities available to children in economically disadvantaged districts.

The school finance litigation in North Carolina illuminates the relationship between teacher quality and the legal obligations imposed by a state constitution. According to the North Carolina courts, the state’s constitution affords every child the right to be on an equal footing in obtaining the opportunity to receive a sound basic education. Among the factors the court considered in determining whether this standard for educational services was met was the quality of the state’s system to ensure teacher quality. The court reviewed teacher-licensure and -certification requirements, program-approval processes for university teacher preparation, and programs to attract and retain qualified teachers.

Teacher quality and state systems for teacher preparation and credentialing, then, are a critical part of what is needed to make sure that a state is meeting its constitutionally mandated obligation to ensure that children receive access to adequate education. Failure to ensure sufficient teacher quality could lead to court determinations that a state is not meeting its constitutional obligations. The remedies for these violations could be court orders for increased spending by legislatures and more effective delivery of services by state and local agencies. The measure of effectiveness of these systems could well be based upon the very tests and assessments mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act or a state education reform statute.

A separate potential education law issue may confront those states that have begun to use state tests to determine the award of high school diplomas: They may face legal challenges to diploma denials, based on alleged deprivations of federal constitutional rights.

The school finance litigation in North Carolina illuminates the relationship between teacher quality and the legal obligations imposed by a state constitution.

These legal claims, based on the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, rest on the recognition that a state using a high school graduation test is obligated to ensure that students have had a fair opportunity to learn the curriculum being tested. Advance notice of the testing requirement, a match between the test and the curriculum and instruction used, sufficient remedial education alternatives, and teacher confirmation of the provision of educational services have all been considered in assessments of whether these constitutional standards have been met. It takes little stretch of the imagination to assume that the capability of teachers to effectively provide educational services in a graduation testing program might well be one of the next considerations in upcoming court cases in this area.

Appropriateness, adequacy, and opportunity to learn, while separate legal concepts, present very similar challenges for public policymakers and educators seeking to promote the common good and, at the same time, avoid successful challenges to their education reform efforts. More funding to support education and more careful attention to the criteria for defining teacher quality will be required.

Ensuring an adequate opportunity to learn for all children, especially those most at risk of educational failure, requires careful attention to both the design and implementation of a reform system. This is particularly true for initiatives such as those called for in the Teaching Commission report, which are intended to enhance teacher quality and performance.

Unless a state and its local school districts are participating in a carefully designed, tightly aligned, and systemic set of initiatives to improve teacher quality along with other improvements to the system, we will most certainly fall short in achieving the goals set out by the Teaching Commission and others who seek fundamental improvement in the way all children are educated.

Diana Pullin represented the students who brought the original lawsuits challenging high school graduation tests and is a professor at Boston College, where she teaches education law and public policy. This essay is drawn from her remarks to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ school finance seminar this year.


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