Teacher Quality Provisions Need More Work

This is my response to questions posted at the National Journal.com Education Experts blog about the ESEA reauthorization bill recently released from committee in the House (H.R.5).  I responded to question about how the draft bill, pushed by the Republicans on Workforce and Education Committee, addresses the “highly qualified teacher” requirments under NCLB.  This is cross-posted at NJ.com/Education Experts


Drafters and supporters of H.R.5 argue that states need more control over teacher licensure and evaluation when, in fact, the opposite may be true.

Currently (and historically), each state establishes its own standards for issuing someone a license to teach, and these standards vary widely. The relatively recent Federal requirement known as the “highly qualified teacher” mandates that a teacher:

  1. Be fully certified and/or licensed by the state
  2. Hold at least a bachelor degree from a four-year institution
  3. Demonstrate competence in each core academic subject area in which the teacher teaches

The first criterion is completely controlled by each state; and each state has different standards and requirements for how persons earn that initial license to teach. Most teacher preparation programs are at state colleges, and all of them (public and private) fall under some level of state scrutiny. The last Federal criterion can be met by passing one of the standardized teacher examinations (such as Praxis) for the subject area in which the person will be teaching; the decisions of which test and what cut score is acceptable are left up to the states. The truth is states already have considerable power and could have done much more to improve the quality of teachers in their states.

The problem with the Federal HQT requirements is not that they over-reach, but that they are woefully insufficient.

As my co-authors and I noted in Teaching 2030, “The United States currently does not have a teacher-education licensing system, only a patchwork of uneven programs….There are no state standards for who gets to supervise student teachers and no requirements that the supervisors themselves are effective teachers who know how to mentor new recruits. What’s more, there are no substantive standards for what student teachers have to demonstrate before they earn the right to teach….” (185).

In 2011, the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (of which I was part) examined the problem of teacher licensure and certification in great depth and issued some very pointed recommendations on how to ensure quality teachers for every student.  Our central conclusion is that while the states should continue to be responsible for initial licensure of new teachers, the granting of those licenses should be “based on a single, rigorous consistent set of national standards” (7) developed, for the first time, by the teaching profession itself. Among these standards should be the requirement that individuals actually demonstrate the ability to teach well before being given a license and responsibility for children.

Establishment of these standards is not the work of the Federal government, but more practically of a professional organization such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards which has already developed psychometrically and pedagogically sound standards for highly accomplished practice of more veteran teachers.  Just as nurses, accountants, doctors, and other professionals must meet standards of practice established by experts in those fields in order to receive state practitioner licenses, we teachers should hold ourselves to similar levels of professional rigor.

Likewise, teacher evaluation has always been entirely in the hands of state and local school districts, and most of those systems have been rightfully criticized for ineffectiveness. H.R. 5 attempts to link teacher licensure/certification to teacher evaluation systems:

The Student Success Act…directs states and school districts to develop teacher evaluation systems that measure an educator’s influence on student learning.  These evaluations must be locally developed and implemented within broad parameters that factor in student achievement, incorporate multiple measures, and include feedback from all stakeholders.

While I agree that these systems should be locally developed, too many states are rushing to hobble together evaluation systems around over-reliance on increasingly inaccurate and invalid state test data. On the other hand, the teachers on the CETT truly shocked many observers with our candid observations and recommendation:

Districts report difficulty in dismissing unsatisfactory teachers, but the problem is circular: Teachers often challenge termination decisions because they were not properly evaluated or were not given an opportunity to improve. Both sides end up being dissatisfied. Ultimately, it is the students who lose under a weak or broken evaluation and support system.

Most teachers agree that our current evaluation systems do a poor job of identifying teachers’ strengths and weaknesses and providing ways for a teacher to improve. To break this cycle, we propose an evidence-based peer-review teacher evaluation system that identifies highly effective practitioners who may assume leadership functions and guarantees due process rights for teachers while expediting the dismissal of unsatisfactory practitioners…..Seniority [should be] used for decision-making only when all other factors are equal. (Transforming Teaching, p. 15)

Ideas like these have been put forward by classroom teachers across the country, and we are increasingly asserting our right and that of students and parents, to be partners, not just objects of education policy.

The committee’s alarm about the “federal footprint” in teacher certification and evaluation is a straw-man that distracts us from working together to solve real problems.

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