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MSPnet Blog: “ESSAy #2: Teacher qualifications”

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posted January 9, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

The commentary on the Every Student Succeeds Act has slackened off during the holidays, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to look for and think about.
Here’s something: What difference will it make to any indicator you care about, that the Federal government will be less involved in setting policies and standards? I have to say that I waffle on the issue of Local Control. On the one hand, Local Control gave us racially segregated schools, schools teaching creationism, the widespread obliteration of sex education… On the other hand, there is a relentless pressure, at the level of content and accountability, to homogenize, and standardize, and crush many kinds of creativity (teacher, student, and even administrator). Maybe it’s a result of growing up in Town Meeting Country (NOT the same as “town hall meetings” so popular among politicians), but I do wonder how we’re going to learn to live in a just and democratic society if we don’t do the learning and the struggle close to home (and in our schools)…

Anyway: One indicator that is of interest is “teacher quality,” whatever that means. In fact, “teacher quality” is one of the places where the ESSA makes changes worth watching. The late NCLB mandated “highly qualified” teachers in every pot, and created some stipulations about how you get to be called “highly qualified.”  (The NCLB definition is summarized and quoted by Mercedes Sneider here).  The definition focuses on, well, qualifications and preparations, and it doesn’t refer to students or skill or anything like that.   One stipulation is that you can’t be called “highly qualified” if you’re licensed provisionally in one of several ways, and have not  “had certification or licensure
requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis.”

As Sneider and others have pointed out, this was modified a few years ago by legislation that allowed teachers-in-training to be counted as “highly qualified,” and construed “training” rather broadly:

In October 2013, Senator Harkin worked to include language into federal government debt legislation a provision that allowed teachers in training to be considered “highly qualified.” Such a provision was a gift to Teach for America (TFA), for it allowed TFAers with their five weeks of summer training to “highly qualify” to become full-fledged teachers under NCLB.However, someone like 2014-15 Alabama Teacher of the Year Ann Marie Corgill, who had been teaching elementary school for over two decades, could not be allowed to teach in a Title-I-funded state under her National Board certification because Alabama does not count National Board certification as an “alternative” certification, nor could the state offer Corgill provisional status to teach fifth grade because such was expressly prohibited under NCLB.

ESSA backs off from this language, and instead mandates “effective” teachers — shifting the emphasis from qualification paths to results, and removing the limitations on teachers with provisional, emergency, and other “nonstandard” certification.  Indeed, criteria for what counts as “effective” are left to a very great extent in the states’ hands, committing to “maximum flexibility” so that states can experiment pretty freely — as long as the effective teachers prove their effectiveness by steady improvement in students’ test scores at rates to be set by the states.  Because this represents a doubling-down on the emphasis on test scores as the prime evidence of school success, it reinforces the unfortunate reliance on a “dose-response” approach to teaching and learning which has mostly been discredited by research.

The ESSA moves even more in the direction of “alternative certification” than  NCLB did, moreover.  As Kenneth Zeichner writes in a widely-cited post,

 the provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act that relate to teacher preparation academies have been primarily written to support entrepreneurial programs like those funded by venture philanthropists.

For example, the law says

on p. 306 (lines 6-14) that the completion of a program in an academy run by an organization other than a university results in a certificate of completion that may be recognized by states as “at least the equivalent of a master’s degree in education for the purpose of hiring, retention, compensation, and promotion in the state.

Peter Greene, in his blog Curmudgucation, comments on this and similar provisions,

On the one hand, reformsters have tried to make it harder to become a teacher. On the state level, StudentsFirst and similar reformy astroturfers have been pushing longer and longer waiting periods for tenure, from two or three years up to three or four or five years– and those years should be spent proving you can raise “student achievement” aka “get test scores up.” And before you can even get to that point, some states want aspiring teachers to go through costly bogus licensing processes like edTPA. 

On the other hand, we’ve also seen a big push to make it easier to become a teacher. Reformsters have pushed for regulations that accept five weeks of Teach for America Summer Camp as perfectly good enough to make a teacher out of someone. Or why not accept a program like RelayGSE, where beginning teachers with no actual teacher education certify that other beginning teachers should be considered fully qualified?

Jal Mehta, in his recent book The Allure of Order, argues that “the teaching profession” has cooperated to keep teaching “weakly professionalized,” but whether or not you buy his arguments (I am not sure I do), the regulation, even the definition, of teaching, and education, continues to be yet another instrument in political games, with little or no regard for the actual effects on children and teachers, current and future.