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NCLB Outrages

Would government have approved of Socrates, Merlin and Annie Sullivan?

Edwatch by Julia Steiny

The noble profession of teaching is gasping for air. Choked with red tape, teacher-proof curricula, bureaucratic demands for credentials, rules, regs and restrictions, teaching is lucky to have as many good practitioners as it has.

Now the federal government is strangling it further with its requirements that all teachers be "highly qualified" by 2006, which is to say: now. According to the feds, "highly qualified" means that teachers have fully met their state's requirements for certification or licensing (each state has its own requirements), and are not teaching outside of the field for which they are licensed (a bilingual speaker cannot teach a Spanish class if certified only in biology). Teachers with licenses issued on emergency, temporary or provisional conditions are not highly qualified. Not a single state is in compliance with this requirement.

Remember that private schools can hire whom they please without regard to any state's credentialing requirements and can focus on getting a good teacher instead of getting the right certifications. Those schools seem to do OK.

If you've been in schools much, you might think a really good teacher is one who engages the kids, has cool projects, runs a dynamic but orderly classroom, laughs often, smiles kindly, is rigorous, firm, enthused if not passionate, and knows the subject well. Most important, good teachers cultivate learning -- which means they help kids score well on tests, motivate reluctant learners and inspire amazing student work that the kids will always remember.

In other words, you know a terrific teacher when you see one.

But the stellar results achieved by terrific teachers have nothing to do with any state's definition of "highly qualified."

"Highly qualified" is about acquiring credentials, period. It is not determined by the school's experience of the teacher's abilities, by the kids' test scores and love of learning, or by parent reports. In other words, "highly qualified" is not determined by results, but by "inputs" -- the teacher's academic degrees, endorsements, time logged here or there. But no test or credentialing process can certify that a teacher actually likes kids, for example, or can turn a strong command of the subject into an engaging lesson.

Credentialing is a big industry that begs scrutiny. The dubious value of many teacher-preparation programs deserves more attention, but today I turn to the recent unmasking of what has been the gold standard of teacher credentials, National Board Certification.

Since the early 1990s, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has promised that its certification guarantees top-notch teachers. Increasingly states and school districts have created big pay incentives to encourage teachers to become board-certified. Almost 50,000 teachers have done so.

To be so certified, veteran teacher applicants create large portfolios containing evidence of their expertise, including videotapes of their classroom teaching, lesson plans, student work and their own essays that reflect on what the teacher does and why. And they must pass tests that demonstrate content knowledge in their specific area of certification: math, elementary special ed and so forth.

What always seemed to me to be missing from this process were the students themselves. A couple of good videotapes can't guarantee a teacher won't be deadly in front of an actual class. Even odder, the students' test scores are not part of the teacher's evaluation. It's hateful to evaluate anything on the basis of test scores alone, but scores would be enlightening along with so much other data. And while parents may not always be the best judges of teaching, shouldn't they also be consulted?

In any case, three recent reports show that students of National Board-certified teachers achieve at just about the same levels as those taught by ordinary teachers. One of the reports' lead authors is William Sanders, the respected data maven from Tennessee. He invented what he calls "value-added modeling" to examine the extent to which teachers increase their students' knowledge, skills and understanding over time. On his scale, both Board-certified and non-Board-certified teachers were all over the map -- good, bad and indifferent -- in about equal proportions. He concluded that Board certification added no value to student learning.

The NBPTS itself commissioned Sanders' study, by the way. The Board dragged its feet releasing the report, but was persuaded to come clean. The other two reports came from the Brookings Institute's Hamilton Project and the McColskey-Stronge study of fifth-grade teachers in North Carolina.

The teachers I know who achieved Board certification loved taking the time to think about what they do, since the art and craft of teaching is indeed profoundly and endlessly interesting. But the true measure of a veteran teacher's skills is his or her impact on actual students in a real school community.

Exposing the weakness of Board certification calls into question whether any teacher-preparation program, series of tests or gold-sealed papers can guarantee that a teacher is excellent. You can certainly test content knowledge to be reasonably assured that a new teacher knows and understands his subject. And portfolios are useful to hiring committees to get a sense of a teacher's style, passions and strong suits. Some licences, like background checks, are a must. But you cannot test for rapport with kids, creativity, sense of humor or affection for the age group. Some terrific teachers are showmen who can sell even Algebra II. Others less entertaining might have a contagious passion for the subject. Still others have a knack for developing projects, assignments and discussion topics that really drive home knowledge and skills. The gifts of effective teachers are surely much more various and unpredictable than the gifts of effective doctors, say.

Test scores and student work are vitally important, but to evaluate teachers properly, you have to go take a look. And then you must have the power to do something about what you see, if things don't look good. A new teacher needs time and mentoring to develop fully, but if after several years she's not starting to add educational value to her students on a consistent basis, the kids need someone else.

In short, it should be much easier to get into the classroom and harder to stay there. We need less credentialing and more ways for talented people to get into the profession, with alternative training programs, for example. And we need much more careful evaluation of the results, including responsible observations of the teachers' daily work.

Unfortunately, the bureaucratic demand that all teachers be "highly qualified" is generating a paper blizzard that will only discourage and depress real efforts to improve teacher quality. The feds would do well to stop in their tracks, admit their mistake and beat a hasty retreat. If they are so interested in micromanaging schools, they need to join the School Improvement Teams in their own backyard, the District of Columbia, where they will surely find plentiful evidence of how expensive and counter-productive most regulations, policies and contracts can be.

— Julia Steiny
Providence Journal
2006-09-03


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