No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is best known as a landmark—and controversial—effort by the federal government to hold public schools accountable for their performance by means of standards and tests. It is also a landmark in another, less publicized sense: it requires that all academic courses in every public school be taught by "highly qualified" teachers. This teacher requirement is unprecedented, and it has great promise.
There is a fly in the ointment, however—a problem in the way NCLB is currently written and executed that undermines its own efforts to improve teacher quality. This is a problem that our political leaders are ignoring. They shouldn't be.
On the surface, NCLB's approach makes sense. It mandates that to be highly qualified a teacher must not only have a bachelor's degree and be certified, which the states already require, but also demonstrate competence in the subject being taught. This is the great innovation of the act—it requires competence.
For new teachers, competence can be demonstrated by having a college major in the relevant subject or by taking a rigorous test of knowledge. Veteran teachers can demonstrate competence in these same ways. Or they can do it by meeting a "high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation" (HOUSSE), which the states are allowed to devise on their own.
Herein lies the problem. The HOUSSE provisions create a loophole big enough to drive three million veteran teachers through—and the states have incentives to do just that. They are under intense political pressure, especially from teachers unions, to protect the interests of veteran teachers and to ensure that no one loses a job. It is no accident that bad teachers have long been virtually impossible to remove from the classroom. And it is no accident that most states are now designing their HOUSSE standards to ensure that every veteran teacher can meet them, regardless of their true competence.
How do the states pull off this charade? By stipulating that their veteran teachers are not required to take substantive tests or have the relevant college majors, but can instead gain highly qualified status through some combination of teaching experience, classes in professional development, self-compiled portfolios, supervisor evaluations, and other factors that can easily produce positive outcomes for every teacher.
In Arkansas, for example, teachers with five years' experience automatically satisfy the HOUSSE standard and become "highly qualified." In Ohio and Massachusetts, teachers can meet the standard by simply racking up enough hours in professional development courses. In New Hampshire, teachers can do it by engaging in a "self-assessment" with a supervisor and "partner." And so it goes, for virtually every state—making a mockery of the law and ensuring that incompetent and mediocre teachers will not be weeded out.
This is a national travesty. The solution is for Congress to modify NCLB by eliminating the HOUSSE option, and requiring that all veteran teachers either have a college major in their subject area or pass a rigorous test of substantive competence. The purpose of our public school system is to see that our children are receiving a quality education, not to protect the jobs of the adults who are hired to teach them. Especially if they can't demonstrate that they are knowledgeable enough to do so.