No Child Left Untested: The NCLB Zone

Where "highly qualified" can mean low-quality teaching

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: Sergio Ruzzier

illustration: Sergio Ruzzier

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve landed in a bizarre parallel universe where up means down and leaving no child behind actually means failing most children.

But then I realize that it’s not just a bad dream or an unbearable quantum pseudo-reality. It’s the NCLB Zone, where rhetorical promises of educational equality are regularly transformed into policies of educational inequality.

Among a bevy of other issues, in this zone, the definition of a “highly qualified” teacher has morphed to include people who only passed a computer exam to receive their professional teaching credentials.

Far from its stated goal of placing well-trained, professional teachers in our nation’s schools, provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) regarding “highly qualified” teachers advance an agenda that includes an over-reliance on high-stakes tests for teachers and ultimately threatens to lower the quality of teachers entering our classrooms.

A Crisis of Qualification

Most people agree that students deserve to be taught by highly qualified, competent teachers. And there’s no denying the need for more well-trained teachers in our classrooms. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige regularly points out that during the 1999-2000 school year, roughly 50 percent of the nation’s middle and high school teachers would not have been considered “highly qualified” by the Department of Education’s standards.

This need is especially great in poorer urban districts and schools where classroom overcrowding, lower pay scales, and a lack of resources make it difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers. The students who need the most resources and best teaching possible to be successful are often being taught by teachers with little to no experience, many of whom hold emergency or temporary teaching credentials. In 2000, Kati Haycock of the Education Trust found that students in high-poverty schools were more than twice as likely to have teachers who weren’t certified in the subject areas they were teaching and that students in schools that had a population of 90 percent or more African-American and Latino students were twice as likely to have teachers without certification at all.

A 2002 analysis of school and staffing data also done by the Education Trust found that schools in high-poverty schools were 77 percent more likely to have classes taught by out-of-field teachers and that schools with a majority non-white population were 40 percent more likely to have teachers assigned to classes out of their fields of expertise. In July 2001, The New York Times reported that 50 percent of the teachers in urban schools leave teaching within their first five years. These staggering figures demonstrate the glaring need for highly qualified, certified teachers in low-income schools and schools predominated by students of color.

NCLB’s rhetorical call for a highly qualified teacher in every classroom draws on the desperate reality we face in our schools today. The question is, will NCLB’s policies shepherd us to the promised land of schools teeming with “highly qualified” teachers? From both structural and political perspectives, the answer is an unqualified no.

The Federal Definition

NCLB lays out several provisions regarding “highly qualified” teachers and provides a broad and seemingly simple definition of what constitutes a “highly qualified” teacher: Anyone with a bachelor’s degree who has been certified as a teacher and can demonstrate content knowledge through coursework or testing is deemed “highly qualified” under the law. As the law stands, all states have to have their core subject classes of History, English, Math, and Science be taught by “highly qualified” teachers by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

On paper, at least, states are given leeway to interpret how they will meet the federal standards for “highly qualified” teachers, but the reality is that states are being forced to substitute a federal definition of “highly qualified” for their own. The definition that Washington imposes is arbitrary and often contradicts local conditions and needs. In many cases the definition does not represent an upgrade of existing state standards for teacher credentialing.

Structural Contradictions

The implementation of the teacher-quality provisions of NCLB has run into technical difficulties. For instance, small schools and rural districts are essentially penalized for being small. Under the law, science teachers in these places would have to major in or have passed subject-matter tests in every single science coursework area. That would mean requiring a different teacher for biology, chemistry, and physics, or requiring that one or two teachers pass tests in all science subject areas. Smaller schools that may have only eight or even 15 teachers just don’t have the resources to hire teachers for every single subject area.

Similar problems have arisen for teachers who teach across multiple subject areas in special education programs and middle school classes, where it is oftentimes impossible for those teachers to be considered “highly qualified” in every single subject they teach. There are some gray areas, depending on what type of school one teaches in. For instance, a school that is K-8 is considered to be an elementary school. Because elementary schools are multidisciplinary, they aren’t required to have “highly qualified” teachers for every subject. But a school that holds only grades 5-8 is considered to be a middle school and is required to have a “highly qualified” teacher in each subject.

Ironically, NCLB may also be actually lowering standards for teachers. At least 12 states have loosened their teacher certification requirements in response to NCLB’s restrictive definitions. This loosening makes it easier for out-of-state teachers to transfer between states, lowers test-score minimums, or adjusts how those scores are counted (by composite averages instead of by individual test scores). And some states are even reducing certification requirements. The net result is that less-qualified teachers are being defined as “highly qualified” as more states scramble to meet NCLB’s demands.

High Stakes for Teachers

Many states currently use high-stakes tests like the Praxis I or II for teacher certification, or they rely on other subject-matter exams for teachers to prove their content expertise. This results in two major problems. First, it makes understanding the processes of teaching and learning take a back seat to knowing the facts of your subject area. Apparently what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: In the NCLB Zone, rote memorization of subject matter is what counts for both students and teachers alike.

Second, the Praxis, which is produced by the Educational Testing Service, also appears to be just as discriminatory as the college entrance SAT exams. Research by assistant professor Dara Wakefield of Berry College in Mt. Berry, Ga., has found that in the year 2000 in Georgia, 93 percent of the white teacher candidates passed the Praxis II, whereas only 73 percent of the African-American candidates passed the same test. The over-reliance on high-stakes tests like the Praxis to determine who is a “highly qualified” teacher mirrors existing race and class inequities and ultimately denies many teachers of color entrance into the field.

Qualified and Privatized?

As sinister as it sounds, many proponents of vouchers and privatization are involved in developing the Bush Administration’s policy regarding “highly qualified” teachers. In October of 2003, Paige announced that the Department of Education would be giving the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) a $35 million, five-year grant to support its efforts in building the corps of “highly qualified” teachers. The ABCTE, which started in 2001, offers the “Passport to Teaching.” If you have a bachelors’ degree, can pass a computer exam, clear a criminal background check, and pay a $500 fee, you too can become a certified teacher. Several states including Idaho, Pennsylvania, and Florida have agreed to accept the ABCTE’s certified teachers.

The ABCTE’s “Passport” represents a political move to deregulate and circumvent state certification standards and state control of teacher education programs. Many of the same national figures that support school vouchers and other forms of public school privatization are intertwined with the ABCTE and, by extension, the Department of Education. Noted voucher proponent Diane Ravitch sits on the ABCTE’s National Advisory Panel, and privatization stalwarts Frederick Hess and Chester Finn, former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, sit on its board of directors.

Kate Walsh, also on the ABCTE’s board of directors and on staff with the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), recently co-edited a book with Andrew Rotherdam of the Progressive Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank. Their book cites claims that teacher certification programs have absolutely no positive effect on student achievement. It is a clear attack on teacher education programs, and it is one that blatantly ignores a significant amount of research demonstrating that teacher education and certification matter greatly in student achievement.

While mainly a conversation among policy wonks and academics, this web of conservative policy power players shows that the fight over defining who is and who is not a “highly qualified” teacher is a deeply political fight.

Imperfect Quality

There is a deeper inherent contradiction at play here for highly qualified teaching professionals as well. Most folks who enter the classroom do it to become teachers, not testers. Will “highly qualified” teachers, with bachelor’s degrees, certifications (alternative or traditional), and content expertise, be happy teaching to the battery of tests required in many school districts? When put up against the testing regime of NCLB, the provisions for “highly qualified” teachers might be more aptly renamed as provisions for “highly qualified” proctors.

Professional contradictions aside, the responsibility for recruiting, educating, and retaining teachers rests on the whole chain of public education—from local schools and districts, to teacher education programs, to state departments of public instruction, to the federal Department of Education. But all of these institutions are imperfect, at best. Funding inequality and achievement gaps based on race and class exist up and down the whole line. Federal and state funding of education is so paltry that working and learning conditions in many schools are just plain unhealthy. Schools of education are churning out a teaching corps that is almost 90 percent white and not prepared to enter a school system that, in 2001, included 40 percent students of color.

Rather than provide the substantial financial and institutional support necessary to get a certified teacher in every classroom, the NCLB takes the same stance toward schools and teachers that it has toward students: Fit into the narrowly conceived federal definition of “successful” or face dire consequences.

In the case of teachers and teacher education, the consequences mean fewer teachers of color, potential deregulation of often rigorous state standards for teaching credentials, and the circumvention of existing schools of education through alternative, for-profit certification programs like the ABCTE’s “Passport to Teaching.” The real folly, however, is that NCLB, with its rigidly imposed definitions and mandates, is actually so focused on keeping track of “highly qualified” teachers’ credentials that it has very little to do with keeping track of quality teaching.