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Has NCLB Improved Teacher Quality?

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Susan Neuman

Susan Neuman, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Despite spending nearly $2 billion to help states comply with the mandate of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law  that every student have a “highly qualified teacher,” the federal government has made little progress in substantially improving teacher quality, according to a former high-ranking education official in the Bush Administration.

Speaking at forum at Teachers College on May 5, Susan Neuman, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that while great teachers are vital to efforts to improve student learning, the attempt by the federal government to regulate teacher quality has proven complicated, bureaucratic and a less-than-resounding success. 

“Finally, we can say that all states now have a highly qualified teacher definition that is compliant with No Child Left Behind,” said Neuman, who is now Professor in Education Studies at University of Michigan School of Education. “No one is excited. I don’t see parents coming home and saying, ‘Guess what? I have a teacher who meets the definition of a highly qualified teacher that is compliant with No Child Left Behind.’ We’re not jumping up and down. Why? Because we’ve seen no change in the quality of teaching.  In fact, I could argue that, at least anecdotally, the quality of education or the quality of teachers isn’t any better than it was before spending all these billions of dollars.”

Neuman’s presentation was part of the Equity in Education Forum series of the College’s Campaign for Educational Equity, which over the past year has parsed topics ranging from federal policy on bilingual education to the impact of class size. The forum on May 5, the final one for the academic year, dealt with the controversial “highly qualified teacher” mandate that was a central provision of NCLB, the signature federal education law of the Bush presidency and which is up for renewal in Congress later this year.

Also speaking at the forum were Charles Barone, Director of Federal Policy for Democrats for Education Reform, who as a staff member of the House Education and Labor Committee helped push for NCLB’s passage, and Sabrina Laine, Director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, who works with states implementing the teacher quality priorities of NCLB.

All three panelists agreed that the “high-quality” provision leaves much to be desired. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to define what high-quality teaching looks like. Instead, the No Child law, which was passed in 2002, sets minimum standards, requiring that all teachers have a bachelor’s degree, certification, and knowledge of the subjects they teach. None of these, Neuman said, have any documented links to improved student outcomes.

Yet Barone argued that while not perfect, the provision is a step in the right direction in setting standards and ensuring that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity or class, are taught by a teacher who has basic credentials and training. It is an issue of equity, he said, and the federal government has a history of intervening when a group is disenfranchised or otherwise disadvantaged.

“I disagree with Susan fundamentally,” Barone said. “I think there is a federal role for intervention in the issue of teacher quality. I don’t think anyone would claim this is a great victory, but we pushed the debate, we set some minimum bars and, ultimately, it is serving the interests of students.”

Laine said the provision has led some states to impose more stringent requirements for teachers than they had applied previously, especially for aspiring teachers seeking alternative routes to certification. And a study in 2008, she said, found that the percent of classes taught by teachers who met the highly qualified teacher provision has increased from 87 to 94 percent.

“So there is movement in terms of the numbers of teachers who have these baseline credentials,” Laine said. “But that’s all we are talking about. This doesn’t tell us how good a teacher is, but at least we’re moving away from having uncertified, unlicensed, uncredentialed people teaching, especially in our most high-need, high-poverty areas.”

For Neuman, the latter point was central: that having a greater number of credentialed teachers is no measure of improved quality. She said that if the federal government wants improved teaching and learning, it would be better served by using tax dollars to help districts, often in urban or rural areas, repair badly deteriorating school buildings, or playing a role in fostering the development of small schools. 

The goal should be to empower teachers to make important decisions about students and their learning, Neuman said—not having policymakers in Washington, D.C., some of whom have not set foot in a K-12 classroom in decades, impose their ideas about effective teaching. “You want these bureaucrats to begin to tell us how to teach and make schools more effective? I think that is a recipe for disaster.”

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