Illustration: Sergio Ruzzier
Most people agree that students deserve to be taught by highly qualified, competent teachers. And there's no denying the need for more well-trained teachers in our classrooms. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige regularly points out that during the 1999-2000 school year, roughly 50 percent of the nation's middle and high school teachers would not have been considered "highly qualified" by the Department of Education's standards.
This need is especially great in poorer urban districts and schools where classroom overcrowding, lower pay scales, and a lack of resources make it difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers. The students who need the most resources and best teaching possible to be successful are often being taught by teachers with little to no experience, many of whom hold emergency or temporary teaching credentials. In 2000, Kati Haycock of the Education Trust found that students in high-poverty schools were more than twice as likely to have teachers who weren't certified in the subject areas they were teaching and that students in schools that had a population of 90 percent or more African-American and Latino students were twice as likely to have teachers without certification at all.
A 2002 analysis of school and staffing data also done by the Education Trust found that schools in high-poverty schools were 77 percent more likely to have classes taught by out-of-field teachers and that schools with a majority non-white population were 40 percent more likely to have teachers assigned to classes out of their fields of expertise. In July 2001, The New York Times reported that 50 percent of the teachers in urban schools leave teaching within their first five years. These staggering figures demonstrate the glaring need for highly qualified, certified teachers in low-income schools and schools predominated by students of color.
NCLB's rhetorical call for a highly qualified teacher in every classroom draws on the desperate reality we face in our schools today. The question is, will NCLB's policies shepherd us to the promised land of schools teeming with "highly qualified" teachers? From both structural and political perspectives, the answer is an unqualified no.
The Federal Definition
NCLB lays out several provisions regarding "highly qualified" teachers and provides a broad and seemingly simple definition of what constitutes a "highly qualified" teacher: Anyone with a bachelor's degree who has been certified as a teacher and can demonstrate content knowledge through coursework or testing is deemed "highly qualified" under the law. As the law stands, all states have to have their core subject classes of History, English, Math, and Science be taught by "highly qualified" teachers by the end of the 2005-06 school year.