Every child deserves excellent teachers. For this reason I and a large number of my colleagues stayed together in a large urban middle school. All of us were not only properly certified and experts in our fields but we were involved in continuing education as well as being teacher leaders within our school and at workshops in other schools. We stayed together and grew together by choice. I make this statement at the beginning of this article so that you may better understand the questions that I ask at the end of this piece.
The term Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) first came into common use in 2002 when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law. According to NCLB a highly qualified teacher was one who had a bachelor’s degree, was fully licensed (certified) in the area he taught and demonstrated subject matter competency. The concern at the time was that in too many cases children in rural and urban districts were being taught by teachers who had provisional or emergency certification and were often teaching outside their area of knowledge. This was certainly a situation that needed to be addressed.
Recently, Secretary of Education Duncan announced that he expects each state to submit a list of teachers in their state who are highly qualified along with their school placements. The purpose is to see if there is an equitable distribution of HQT’s throughout their state. Two variations of the idea of highly qualified teachers are now muddying the waters on this request. One is that in too many school districts those who are responsible for placing teachers have conceptually changed the definition of a highly qualified teacher into a teacher with more than five years of experience. The other new meaning seems to come from Sec. Duncan’s focus on using standardized tests to rate teachers. Under this rating system the idea is to have the most effective teachers who can move children forward in standardized tests.
In addition to requesting this information there is a plan to publish Educator Equity profiles in Fall, 2015. The information included would compare teacher experience levels, attendance rates, and qualifications at high and low poverty schools. The idea is to allow states to see where they have gaps in equitably distributing teachers.
I do not often agree with Secretary Duncan on educational policy matters. I do agree with his desire to be sure that every child has a highly qualified teacher. With that said let me share some of my questions about both the strategy being used as well as the morphing definitions of who is a highly qualified teacher.
1. Which definition of a highly qualified teacher will be used?
The original definition of an HQT from the NCLB is the most clear. It requires proper certification as well as subject knowledge. If states determine that more experienced teachers are the HQTs does this mean that we are sure that those teachers are properly certified and have the necessary subject knowledge? To me the most problematic definition would be to consider “effective” teachers those who improved their students test scores. This last definition would mean that teachers who didn’t raise their students test scores would be removed from the school. One of the biggest problems in these low performing schools is high teacher turnover. This later concept would add to that turnover.
2. Are we comparing apples to oranges if we only look at the teacher who is being placed?
Placing experienced teachers in low performing schools may seem like a good idea on the surface but unless we look at the institutions in which that teacher gained this experience it could be a recipe for disaster. A teacher whose experience has been in a school/district with supportive administrators, engaged parents, and all necessary supplies may not fare well or be effective in a school without those advantages. On the other hand if we place a teacher who meets the original NCLB definition of highly qualified and has supportive administrators and the necessary supplies to teach can we avoid wholesale transfers of teachers?
3. Why do we only focus on classroom teachers when we concern ourselves with equity in education?
Teachers like children bloom when they are in a supportive environment. In schools where there is a supportive administration miracles can occur. I can tell you from my own experience that during the years when my school had supportive and visible administrators the teachers and children worked well and made progress even if we often lacked supplies. I can also tell you that during my last few years of teaching we had a principal who was very adversarial towards teachers. It reached the point where half of what had been a very stable and effective staff sought transfers to other schools. The result was a school that fell apart the year after I retired.
If we are going to say that we want all children to have an excellent education we must look beyond the classroom teacher. Decisions made on the state and local levels are important. Decisions made by school boards also enter into the picture. The quality of administrators and their positive vision for their school can work wonders. But most of all unless we find an equitable way to fund our schools we will never fairly provide all children with an equitable education.