The key to any meaningful improvement in education is the teacher and the No Child Left Behind law to some degree recognizes that by requiring a "highly qualified" in each classroom by 2006. However, as I’ve ranted many times before, Congress abdicated their responsibility to define that term by leaving it up to each state to decide it’s meaning. Jay Mathews in his weekly online column tackles this issue of measuring teacher quality by looking at a new report by the Education Trust, the title of which gets right to the point: Telling the Whole Truth (or Not) About Highly Qualified Teachers.
The Education Trust team said they found a very wide range of responses in the state reports: "Some states appear to have taken the reporting provisions to heart, working hard to provide an honest accounting of where they are and where they need to improve. But others took a different track. Some states simply didn’t report any data, citing an inability to gather even this most basic information. And some states seem to have used their discretion in interpreting the law to cross the line that separates fact from fiction, to paint a rosy picture that is simply at odds with reality."
The most prominent fairy tale alleged by the Education Trust was Wisconsin’s declaration that it had the nation’s best highly qualified teacher numbers. The Education Trust report said that if the state’s figures were true, "we would encourage school leaders to rush to Wisconsin to learn from and emulate their exciting teacher production and retention strategies. Unfortunately, they’re not. In fact, Wisconsin is currently one of a minority of states that have no subject matter testing requirements for new teachers at all."
Basically, Wisconsin said that a teacher was qualified if they had a teaching license, which only requires that they finish an "approved program" somewhere in the country. As result, the state told the Department of Education that 98.6 of their teachers were "high qualified". What’s worse, the feds believed them – or at least didn’t comment on the fantastic numbers.
The Education Trust also accused the U.S. Education Department going soft. A federal spokesperson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel nearly two months after the Wisconsin submitted its highly qualified teacher numbers that it wasn’t clear yet if they were in compliance. Seven states, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Tennessee, missed the Sept. 1 deadline for teacher quality data, and so far the federal government does not appear to have complained. And Utah, after reporting that 95.9 percent of its teachers were highly qualified, added in a parenthesis that only 25 percent of teachers were "fully" highly qualified, while 71 percent had "interim" highly qualified status. To which the Education Trust report added, "whatever that is."
The most depressing thing about this whole situation is that the people in charge seem to be spending lots of time and money on juggling statistics and very little on actually improving teacher quality. When it comes to improving education in this country, nothing – not political pronouncements, not standardized testing, not moving kids around – will have more impact than training and supporting good teachers.