Testimony of Ross Wiener, Policy Director for the Education Trust, before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on “The Importance of Highly Qualified Teachers in Raising Academic Achievement”

Publication date: Apr 21, 2004

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today on the importance of the teacher quality provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

For decades, we’ve known that public education has accepted high levels of out-of-field teaching as inevitable, and has systematically assigned its weakest teachers to its weakest students.  Indeed, no matter the measure of teacher quality, the conclusion is always the same: low-income students and students of color are pervasively assigned to less qualified teachers than their peers.

This Committee has exhibited great leadership in the effort to correct these unfair practices and improve teacher quality by including expansive teacher-related provisions in NCLB. These provisions represent the “support” side of this ambitious law – the substantive provisions with the most potential to actually improve teaching and instruction in previously low-performing schools.

Before talking directly about the provisions of the law, let me remind you of some context. As Congress prepared to reauthorize ESEA in 2001, African American, Latino and low-income high school seniors were graduating with skills in reading and mathematics that were virtually indistinguishable from other students at the end of middle school. These gaps in student skills threaten to undermine the nation’s economic vitality, and have profound moral and civic implications for a democratic society committed to equality of opportunity.

I. Your Focus on Teacher Quality is Critically Important

The latest research establishes that teachers vary tremendously in their effectiveness and that the most effective teachers can teach even the most disadvantaged students up to high standards.

Congress has responded to the growing knowledge about the importance of quality teachers with a number of legislative initiatives. But none have been more significant or possess more potential for positive impact than the teacher quality provisions in NCLB. These provisions call on States to accept three fundamental responsibilities:

  • 1. to define what it means to be “highly qualified” and adopt the goal of all teachers meeting this standard by spring 2006;
  • 2. to ensure that poor and minority children are no longer short-changed in the distribution of teacher talent; and
  • 3. to report to parents and the public on progress toward meeting these goals.

Despite widespread belief to the contrary, the teacher quality provisions in NCLB defer mightily to the states and include significant new resources to focus on improving teacher quality.

These provisions establish a critically important principle: if a school has a persistent problem recruiting and retaining enough qualified teachers, then the district and State have a problem, too. That’s good news for these schools and their students.

It is important to keep in mind that there are no monetary penalties or other sanctions for failing to meet the teacher quality goals in NCLB.  States and districts have pledged to work on these issues and to publicly report on their progress, but no systems or individual teachers will be punished if the goals are not achieved.

Before highlighting some examples of states and districts that are making progress on raising teacher quality issues, I have to mention some of the progress we are not seeing. Unfortunately, many states have resisted fully acknowledging the teacher quality problems on which NCLB directs the public’s attention. They’ve “responded” to the requirements of the law by adopting specifications that are so weak, they make it appear as if there are no pressing problems on which to focus.

Compounding resistance in the field, the U.S. Department of Education has not shown sufficient leadership in the area of teacher quality. Consequently, the teacher quality provisions – provisions that emphatically embrace teachers as the most important resource in helping students learn and allocate substantial resources to help them get even better – have frequently been cast as anti-teacher. And a law that stresses both accountability and support gets misunderstood as being focused only on accountability.

Now let me briefly describe a couple of districts and states that have embraced the teacher quality challenge, and are seeing some promising results:

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In Philadelphia, NCLB is strengthening the hand of education leaders who are willing to tackle the problem head-on.

Because of NCLB, all of Pennsylvania’s middle school teachers who had not previously demonstrated subject knowledge were required to take the state’s teacher exam in their subject(s). The results brought attention to the fact that many of Philadelphia’s middle school teachers need additional assistance and support to strengthen their subject knowledge. In fact, more than half of all middle school teachers who took the tests, including almost two-thirds of the middle school math teachers, did not pass.

Philadelphia’s school district and its superintendent are to be commended for their positive and constructive response to these results. The superintendent publicly referred to the test results as a “wake-up call.” The school district announced a major initiative that will provide intensive training and assistance to help these teachers. Without the teacher quality provisions in NCLB, this important issue would have received little or no attention and fewer resources.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

An initiative in Chattanooga, Tennessee is focused on helping nine high-poverty elementary schools, each of which previously ranked among the bottom 20 statewide in terms of achievement. The core strategy is a bonus plan that provides an extra $5,000 for highly effective teachers who agree to teach in the targeted schools.

The results have been impressive. High teacher turnover, a perennial problem for hard-to-staff schools, has greatly declined. The percentage of third grade students reading at grade level increased by nearly 50% over two years, while the targeted schools have improved much faster than other schools both district and statewide, in all five subjects tested. Other districts are now emulating this example, including a program in Mobile, Alabama, which is using NCLB Title II funds to pay substantial bonuses to highly qualified teachers who agree to work in the lowest-performing schools, and additional bonuses if these teachers meet ambitious goals for raising student achievement.

State of Ohio

The Ohio Partnership for Accountability is a newly formed consortium of all 50 teacher preparation institutions in the state, the Ohio Board of Regents, and the Ohio Department of Education. The Partnership has secured the participation of both major teacher unions in Ohio as well as the business community. This ground-breaking project will evaluate the preparation, in-school support, and effectiveness of Ohio’s teachers using field studies and a comprehensive database that is being customized for this purpose.

There is no question that NCLB has brought added energy and urgency to understanding good teaching and ensuring that more children get it.

V.  Recommendations

While the teacher quality provisions have garnered significant attention, their actual impact on changing practices and procedures has thus far been limited. The U.S. Department of Education needs to better meet its responsibilities to explain the teacher quality provisions, monitor compliance, and share best practices. This last responsibility is critically important to conveying a sense of hope and possibility in the face of critics who claim the law’s goals are unreachable or unreasonable.

Congress should undertake proactive oversight activities to ensure these provisions are being implemented, to learn about shortcomings that should be addressed in the next ESEA reauthorization, and to explore areas where additional federal legislation and financial support could accelerate progress on teacher quality issues.

Specifically, Congress should consider the following:

1.  Ask GAO to Report on Title II Allocations and Programs

Congress increased funding for teacher quality improvement activities by nearly 50% after enacting NCLB, from approximately $2 billion to $3 billion per year. The funding formula in Title II specifically targets most of this money to the schools with the fewest highly qualified teachers. However, many public reports suggest that the existence of these additional funds is not widely known and are not being effectively targeted to the neediest schools. Too little is known about how Title II’s $3 billion annual appropriation is being used. Congress should request an accounting on this issue.

2.  Support Value-Added Data Systems

Many states had not previously collected data on the distribution of qualified teachers. This is an imperative first step to identifying the most serious problems and tracking progress over time. Even some states that have reliable statewide data don’t have systems that are needed for sophisticated data analysis. Better information management systems and technology could help states identify which of their teachers are most effective, and learn from them. A small investment to help states develop and implement better data systems would greatly enhance the knowledge base on which states design and evaluate education improvement strategies.

3.  Commit Additional Resources to Teacher Quality Initiatives

Federal resources could provide incentives to recruit more teachers with strong backgrounds in math and science, as well as teachers who are skilled at helping students with disabilities, teachers with bilingual skills, and more under-represented minorities into the teaching profession.

In addition, high-poverty schools do not have the resources they need to compete for the most qualified teachers. States need to step up to their responsibilities on this issue, but Congress could help with significant incentives for teachers who have proven to be effective and who are willing to take on the toughest challenges in the highest-poverty schools.  Right now, too little is known about what really works in attracting and retaining the most effective teachers into our hardest-to-staff schools. A competitive grant for those districts who are willing to experiment could make a significant contribution.

VI.  Conclusion

In conclusion: The teacher quality provisions in NCLB represent an important extension of the federal government’s efforts to improve public education, in particular for low-income and minority students. This focus is based on a strong record of research establishing teacher quality as the single most critical component of educational improvement efforts. Moreover, these provisions embody the best elements of federalism: they identify a problem of national significance, provide some resources to state and local officials to focus on these problems, and call on the states to address their own unique circumstances with their own standards and strategies.

In essence, getting enough qualified teachers for our nation’s public schools needs to be everyone’s business. By placing teacher quality squarely on the nation’s agenda, Congress has made it more likely that public K-12 systems will get the help they need from their state legislatures, institutions of higher education, business communities, and other sectors of society. Congress has made an important contribution by elevating the prominence of the issue, and by providing some resources to spark innovation.

Most importantly, Congress has taken a significant step forward in the quest to ensure that systems of public education better respond to the needs of all students – especially low-income students and students of color. Thank you.

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