The Baltimore Sun went looking for "highly qualified" teachers in the metropolitan area and what they found is really no surprise. Their reporters found that a large number of teachers who had been rated "conditional" by the state taught in the 25 lowest performing schools, 35% of all teachers in those schools. In the 25 highest performing schools, fewer than 2% of the teachers were rated less than "highly qualified". In addition, there were also a much higher number of teachers with advanced degrees in the top schools.

So, maybe the first question that should be asked is: did the "highly qualified" teachers choose to work in the top schools or do the kids in those schools do well because those teachers are there? Not so fast! Before that maybe we need to know what "highly qualified" means. And, does a Master’s or Doctorate degree really make someone a better teacher?

There is some disagreement about the value of certification, or licensing, as a measure of teacher quality. Even supporters would not suggest that the presence or absence of a certified teacher is the chief reason a child does well or poorly in school.

An Abell Foundation study concluded last year that uncertified teachers are as effective in the classroom as those who are fully licensed. Others dispute that. "We have yet to find ways to measure teacher quality in terms of what actually happens in the classroom," says Daniel Fallon, education chairman of the Carnegie Corp. of New York, a foundation.

All this takes on even more importance since the No Child Left Behind legislation requires that every classroom have a "highly qualified" teacher by 2006. However, the federal government has left it up to the states to figure out how to measure quality and Maryland, as in most states, uses the state teacher license as the boundary between qualified or not.

But it’s not that simple. Just as you can’t judge whether a student has a good education only based on standardized tests, you can’t declare a person to be a good teacher because they’ve passed state certification requirements.

Educators warn against assuming that uncertified teachers are poor teachers. Some in the conditional category have changed careers or are in alternative programs such as Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in distressed urban and rural schools after a summer of training. While they’re on the job, these teachers pledge to complete their education credits. Still, many teachers are conditionally certified because they can’t pass Praxis I, a test of basic skills at about the eighth-grade level of difficulty, or Praxis II, a test in the teacher’s subject matter. (Both are products of the Educational Testing Service, which also produces the SAT.)

Finally, there’s the matter of what happens after a teacher is declared "highly qualified". A person might be a good teacher on their first day in the classroom but they won’t necessarily stay at that level. Things change, especially in education, and anyone who doesn’t continue to expand their skills, learn more about their subject, and grow professionally will not remain "good" for long. If NCLB is going to work, the definition of "highly qualified teacher" needs to expand to incorporate regular, continuing, meaningful professional development for all educators.