(Failure) EFFECTIVE TEACHERS
Certification Is a Paper Shuffle
No Child Left Behind was intended to ensure high-quality teachers in every school, regardless of poverty level or neighborhood. It aimed to prevent school districts from concentrating low-performing teachers in poor areas where parents were less likely to complain.
The law didn’t even get out of the starting gate in rectifying that situation. Faced with a torrent of protests from teachers unions and schools, the authors stopped short of mandating an ultimate “effectiveness” goal and settled for requiring teacher certifications. To be considered “highly qualified” under the law, teachers need two things—a bachelor’s degree in the subject they teach and a teaching credential.
Teachers and school administrators describe the law’s certification requirements as ludicrous and time-consuming, causing bureaucratic headaches while doing nothing to indicate a teacher’s abilities. Teacher evaluations and professional-development efforts continue on an ad hoc basis depending on the state and the district, but they have little to do with the check-the-box credentialing.
In poor areas, boosting teacher quality is largely a problem of resources. The law requires states to distribute money evenly, but they often find a way out. “The law contains several loopholes that are big enough to drive a truck through,” said Haycock, the Education Trust president, who is a staunch defender of many of its provisions. “District budgeting practices end up favoring schools serving the fewest poor children, in some cases by as much as $1 million a year.”
Among the experts NJ polled, the term “failure” popped up most frequently when referring to this part of the statute. “The highly qualified teacher provision, in particular, has meant merely one more paper shuffle. Indeed, it has proven a distraction,” said Frederick Hess, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
The law’s teacher-effectiveness provisions exist largely because of Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Before Miller began negotiating No Child Left Behind in 2001, he had already spent 10 years fighting for teacher-certification mandates. He was mostly on his own. In 1994, he lost a House floor vote, 424-1, on his proposal to require states to certify all teachers and set aside funds to pay exceptional teachers higher salaries.
Miller hoped to eradicate a practice in California in which teachers with temporary certificates were spending six or seven years on the job in bad schools.
“As the lead negotiator for the House Democrats, I can tell you that these [teacher] provisions were hard fought,” said Charles Barone, federal-policy director at Democrats for Education Reform. Barone, who worked for Miller when No Child Left Behind was being drafted, said that Democrats wound up giving worried naysayers “the benefit of the doubt” by allowing states to come up with their own teacher-evaluation systems. That concession effectively torpedoed the provision’s goals.
“We now know that just because teachers are certified in their core subject matter, it doesn’t mean they are actually ‘effective,’ ” said House Speaker John Boehner, who chaired the House Education panel in 2001 and wrote No Child Left Behind with Miller.
Then and now, the unions are the harshest critics of the law’s teacher-effectiveness provisions. “The approach relied on arbitrary and narrow measures,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. At the same time, she added, the law did little to provide teachers with what they needed to improve, such as in-service training and job-embedded professional development.
(Success) SPOTLIGHT ON ACHIEVEMENT
School Data Is a Public Commodity
The law’s drafters wanted to take a snapshot of schools and broadcast students’ skills (or lack thereof) to the world. On that objective, No Child Left Behind succeeded.
In the history of the laws governing K-12 public education, the focus on student achievement has never been as intense as it has been since 2002. The law’s simple requirement that schools make public their reading and math test results and show disparities among different groups of students has changed the way educators and parents view their school systems.
The civil-rights community cheers the requirement that schools must report test data for girls, boys, Caucasians, Latinos, African-Americans, special-needs students, low-income children, and English-language learners. The No Child Left Behind Act is the current reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first enacted in 1965 and reauthorized every five years. The disaggregation mandate by itself underscores the original law’s core purpose as a civil-rights law. “The law has also brought to light rampant education disparities for students of color, students living in poverty, English-language learners, and students with disabilities,” a coalition of civil-rights groups declared in an April letter to members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.