As we wait for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to make it out of Congress in 2012 (don’t hold your breath), the First Focus Campaign for Children is advocating to keep the current definition of Highly Qualified Teachers (fully-certified, fully-prepared) in ESEA. In doing so, we will provide diverse learners and our most deserving students with educators that are both fully prepared and highly effective. Research indicates that teacher quality is the most important school based factor impacting student achievement. Yet, students in low-income and minority schools are far less likely to have access to fully-prepared and effective teachers, as are students with disabilities and English learners. In many communities, students experience a revolving door of untrained and under-supported novice teachers who cannot sustain a high-quality education. Teachers should have all the pedagogical skills and tools necessary to address diverse learning needs on day one (not a year later) while being provided with effective professional development opportunities throughout their careers. In doing so, we not only sustain the teaching profession but also create stability for the students that need it most. Finally, ESEA comparability provisions should be strengthened and enforced to ensure equitable distribution of resources and of qualified teachers across schools serving different populations of students. ESEA should strengthen and enforce these comparability requirements and ensure poor and minority students, and students with disabilities, are not being taught by disproportionate numbers of uncertified, inexperienced, or out-of-field teachers.

The following is a blog post by our partners at the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that further clarifies why we should fully prepare and support our teachers rather than treat them as villains in education reform.

From Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to former school chancellors Michelle Rhee (DC) and Joel Klein(NYC), education “reformers” demand a no-excuses, no-nonsense overhaul to our country’s education system. According to this get tough coalition, children are underperforming because teachers protected by unions have low expectations, and principals who lack visionary leadership are inefficient administrators. Simply put, our schools are failing our children. The solution: evaluate, reward, and fire teachers and principals on the basis of student test scores, and close down chronically underperforming schools. Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind impose these policies on “failing” schools in the name of raising student achievement.

But this is a misdiagnosis of the education problem. While no one disagrees with the goal of having passionate, talented, and motivated teachers in their child’s classroom, or with low-income children’s particular need for them, the problem of underachievement runs much deeper than purported school inefficiencies. As decades of research have shown us, and as anyone who has been a parent, teacher, principal, or just a member of the community should know, out-of-school factors, from before kindergarten experiences to those in the after-school and summer months, have far more impact on academic and behavioral outcomes than those inside the school walls. Viewing student achievement through a broader and bolder lens:

  • Brain development and early childhood research find birth-to five years to be critical to later educational achievement, so disadvantaged children whose families lack the means to support a healthy early childhood or access to preschool start school up to two years behind.
  • A child who is hungry, has difficulty breathing because of asthma, or suffers from a toothache may be too plagued by distraction to learn effectively, even from an excellent teacher.
  • A child who lacks access to books, and who misses summer camp and other enriching experiences will be educationally disadvantaged compared to his or her peers. One study suggests that up to two-thirds of the achievement gap opens during out-of-school time.
  • Racial and economic segregation in schools (and neighborhoods) has translated into concentrations of students suffering the consequences of poverty in the same schools, presenting challenges for teachers and principals that cannot be overcome by strong instruction or administration alone.

Not only does this exclusive emphasis on in-school reform fail to acknowledge the root source of lower achievement for disadvantaged children, it even misses its own narrow target of improving test scores. Putting educators’ jobs and school resources on the line does strongly incentivize maximizing math and reading exam results, which has led to a narrowing of curriculum and to “teaching to the test.” Putting so much weight on math and reading performance impoverishes other aspects of learning — character development, art, humanities, history, the sciences, physical education, civics – that Americans believe are essential parts of education. This effect has been recognized by some school leaders who propose to allow standardized tests to be taken any time of the year, so that at least those who pass can move on to deeper material. [The exacerbation of achievement and instruction gaps that may result from this strategy further illustrates the problematic consequences of high-stakes tests and attempts to bypass them.] Attaching high stakes to low-quality tests also renders these tests an inaccurate indicator of student achievement; how can we tell whether students comprehend material or are simply regurgitating lectures?

Finally, accountability standards that “get tough” also lead to widespread cheating. Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and New York City are just a few of the cities in which “miraculous” increases in test scores have been revealed to be the result of either shifts in test score cut-offs or widespread cheating – teachers are caught or accused of changing students’ wrong answers. With large bonuses offered as rewards for boosting test scores (such as Michelle Rhee’s $8,000 dollar teacher and $10,000 principal incentives), and the threat of losing jobs or closing schools altogether for those who do not, is it any wonder this strategy has yielded such malignant results?