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Debate Continues Over 'Highly Qualified' Standard

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The zeitgeist around teacher-quality policy these days is clearly "teacher effectiveness," as measured through standards-based observations of teachers coupled with some aspect of student growth.

There's good reason to believe that whatever happens with a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it will include some policymaking on this topic. Take the Obama administration's Blueprint as just one of the policy possibilities.

That still leaves the folks on Capitol Hill with the puzzling question of what to do with the current "highly qualified teacher" requirements in ESEA.

HQT has not been on the radar screen lately, and honestly, if there is one part of ESEA that everyone loves to trash talk, it's gotta be this part. No matter where people stand on teacher quality, they generally agree that the HQT standard is pretty low, and that the implementation and enforcement of the provisions leave a lot to be desired.

It's possible that HQT will go away altogether in favor of some effectiveness measure, but that would pose new problems. For instance, if you want to use value-added as one measure of teacher skill, you need at least a few years of data to do so. Beginning teachers aren't going to have that.

Some advocates say it's important to continue to have a baseline quality standard for beginning teachers until they can be mentored and evaluated.

That was the basic point made yesterday by a variety of civil-rights groups, including the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the NAACP, the National Council on Educating Black Children, and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, at a panel discussion on Capitol Hill. Representatives from those groups said at the meeting that Congress should tighten the HQT as one part of an overall strategy for better distributing qualified and effective teachers.

Many studies over the years have shown that poor students tend to get inexperienced teachers or teachers with lesser qualifications. In particular these civil rights groups are peeved at what they see as federal capitulation in those patterns. They're protesting a 2002 U.S. Department of Education regulation that allowed states to consider teachers who were still in alternative routes to certification as "highly qualified" for a limited number of years.

This regulation, you may recall, was the basis of a California lawsuit in which parents said their children's civil rights were violated by being taught disproportionately by intern teachers who, while technically "highly qualified," were still learning the ropes. A panel of judges ultimately sided with the plaintiffs and against the Education Department.

But late last year, Congress codified the regulation in a stop-gap measure, essentially rendering the California situation moot. In response, the groups presenting at yesterday's panel discussion shot off a strongly worded letter of protest to President Obama, the U.S. Secretary of Education, and the House and Senate education committees.

At the event yesterday, the groups said that the rewrite of ESEA should require districts to disclose to parents which teachers are still in training, to make sure that poor and minority students have access to "fully prepared" teachers, and to stop what they deemed the "race to the bottom" in teacher qualifications.

Is it that easy in practice? Well, research on the topic of entry qualifications, specifically preparation and certification, is notoriously difficult to parse. There does seem to be some evidence that specific kinds of experiences, like student-teaching, do matter, and that all other things being equal, qualifications—and the time at which teachers finish their formal preparation—can exert an influence on student achievement.

A study on North Carolina data found that teachers with "regular" licenses tended to do somewhat better than "lateral entry" teachers still taking coursework, for instance. Yet, when compared to a broader set of factors, teachers' licensure type in that study was less closely related to how their students did than factors like number of years of teaching experience and licensure test scores.

Generally, there is so much variation within both alternative and traditional education programs that it's hard to say anything universal about them at the 30,000-foot level where policy is made. Differences in routes also seem to even out somewhat over time as teachers gain experience: At least one research synthesis has basically called a draw on the matter saying there's not much evidence that students taught by alternative route teachers are, on average, better or worse than those taught by traditional routes.

So, for Hill staffers, the question is: What do you value? Is there a way to set a better minimum standard for teachers without shutting out potentially good routes to teaching?

Bottom line, revising the HQT standard isn't going to be a cakewalk. Far from it. It does seem like these civil-rights groups have gotten an ear on the Hill: The event was "co-sponsored" (whatever that's supposed to mean) by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Finally, a few things were more or less left out of this discussion. The event was very focused on loopholes in the HQT standards for beginning teachers. But there was almost no discussion about all of the other work-arounds in the law for veteran teachers.

If, for instance, you were a veteran teacher, you could skip taking a test or content credit hours and complete an alternative, state-set standard known as the HOUSSE to demonstrate content competency. States' HOUSSE options were widely considered to be fairly poor in quality. Teachers' unions are among those who have endorsed efforts to beef up the HQT standards—but they were also among the groups who fought to keep the HOUSSE option in place when the Education Department tried to close it in the mid-2000s.

When I posed a question to the panelists about raising the bar for existing teachers, they suggested that new teacher evaluations could help serve that purpose.

That makes some sense, when you consider that the research is pretty clear that teachers' skill levels do vary considerably, and that things like qualifications don't seem to predict much of that variation. Much of the work on teacher evaluations could lead to a better sense of what makes for effective practices.

Still, the panelists didn't go into much depth about what new teacher evaluations should look like—other than underscoring that such systems should be based on multiple measures.

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