Taking short cuts on teacher quality

After months of increasingly shrill criticisms directed at No Child Left Behind, recent news out of Pennsylvania (see "Secrecy vs. sunshine" below for more) offers a painful but healthy reminder of what motivated anyone to pass such a law in the first place. The state is requiring its middle school teachers to take tests in their subject areas, not because it suddenly got religion about the importance of teachers' subject matter knowledge, but because NCLB is making states get serious about teachers' academic credentials, particularly middle school teachers.

The Pennsylvania results were both bad and all too predictable. One out of every four teachers, all of them already state-certified, couldn't pass a test aimed at a 10th-grade skill level. Even more damning, Philadelphia's teachers weren't included in these numbers. (That city's failure rate was far higher.) Suburban districts cannot assume this is exclusively a big-city problem.

My guess is that these low pass rates won't be unique to Pennsylvania. We haven't really begun to mine the depths of this national problem, a problem caused by states' willingness to certify teachers who lack a fundamental prerequisite for effective instruction: subject-matter knowledge. It was this lack of basic knowledge that led the architects of No Child Left Behind to make the startling distinction between state certification of a teacher and proof that said teacher is adequately educated in his/her discipline.

The federal law gives new teachers little wiggle room: either earn a college major in their field or pass a test. Good for Congress and good for our grandchildren's future.

But the 3.2 million teachers already in the classroom are another matter. Fearful of the backlash that would result from making practicing teachers re-earn their place in schools - and mindful of union political clout - a compromise was reached, one that (typically) is more attuned to the interests of adults than children: NCLB lets each state devise more flexible standards, indeed an entire menu of state-sanctioned activities from which current teachers may choose, all of which are supposed to prove teachers' subject matter knowledge.

It is here that NCLB loses its punch.

The National Council on Teacher Quality has analyzed the teacher-quality standards of 20 states to determine whether these could successfully identify and bring up to speed teachers who are weak in their disciplines. This first of three report cards was released last week and can be found at http://www.nctq.org/nctq/publications/. In coming months, we will evaluate the remaining states and will revisit changes made in these first sets of state teacher quality standards.

For the 20 states we evaluated, the average grade is a dreadful D+. At one end of the spectrum is lonely Illinois with the only earned A, but eight states fall at the other end, earning a D or F. Overall, states' teacher quality standards ranged from reasonable and responsible attempts to meet the spirit of NCLB to approaches that are best described as indifferent, even disdainful of the law's goals.

These states devised standards that are often breathtakingly inconsistent, irrelevant, illogical, and most commonly riddled with loopholes, like fishing nets made of Hula-Hoops.

Almost all states encourage teachers to take college courses in their subject area, but they also allow an array of other options that are but distantly related to subject matter knowledge. It doesn't take an Einstein to realize that the weakest teachers will be most apt to choose "attending a state convention" over a course in Advanced Calculus.

States have approved a range of activities (with each activity worth some fraction of the 100 points needed for a teacher to be deemed qualified) that are so complicated and extensive that it's not hard to imagine that more imaginative leaders might have persuaded teachers instead to take a 2-hour test, if only to avoid the hassle.

But imaginative leadership has not been the name of this game. Rather, teachers have heard a message from their state education departments and local districts that deepens their indignation. Instead of enlisting the backing of the nation's great teachers, telling them that this represents a genuine effort to identify weak instructors and help them get better, teachers, principals, and district bureaucrats now find themselves counting points for (inter alia) heading an academic club, mentoring a new teacher, submitting a portfolio, taking an educational technology course, or learning how to better manage the classroom - none of which yields evidence of teachers' subject matter knowledge and most of which will leave weak teachers safely ensconced in their classrooms.

As a nation, we must either take this problem seriously or forget about it. States and/or the federal government should bar these weak, inconsistent, and off-the-mark standards. We routinely ask our doctors and nurses, our attorneys and real estate agents, our auto mechanics and massage therapists, to show - and show continually - that they know their stuff by taking courses and exams. We certainly can ask the same of our teachers.

Kate Walsh is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, on the web at www.nctq.org.

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