Politics & Policy

Red(-Tape) Menace

Principals need flexibility.

It’s pop-quiz time for school reformers. Take out your #2 pencils and circle the answer with which you agree.

To boost teacher quality, policymakers should:

a. Allow principals to hire the best teachers they can find, regardless of credentials.

b. Require new teachers to pass a rigorous test of subject matter knowledge or possess a major in their field.

Do you find yourself wanting to answer “both, of course”? If so, join the club. And consider yourself part of the problem, because, frankly, together we have made a mess of teacher-quality policy.

It’s not for lack of good intentions. Unlike the teacher unions, whose positions on this issue cannot be disentangled from their members’ self-interest, reformers can claim purity of heart and selflessness of intentions. But we are also of two minds; we feel the tug of competing values. And, too often, we try to split the difference, to have it both ways.

The values at war are deregulation versus academic rigor. Let’s examine the case for each.

The argument for deregulation is strong. Much of the rhetoric of the standards-and-accountability movement (and its cousin, the charter-school movement) is about results in return for flexibility, giving principals more power and therefore stronger outcomes. Now that school leaders are in the hot seat, facing exposure and sanctions under No Child Left Behind if they don’t boost achievement, they have every incentive to hire great teachers who can help them succeed in making adequate yearly progress (AYP). This was not always the case: In the bad old days before accountability, principals might have been tempted to engage in nepotism, or have been too lazy to search out the best and the brightest. After all, results didn’t much matter. But no longer. Surely any principal worth his salary knows that teacher quality is the number-one determinant of student achievement, at least among factors within his control.

Besides, so much of what makes a teacher effective is hard to measure (at least until the value he or she adds to student achievement can be determined). One study by analyst Dan Goldhaber found that 97 percent of a teacher’s effectiveness could not be predicted by easy-to-measure factors such as test scores or certification status. While teachers with majors in their field, high scores on Praxis, and Ivy League pedigrees might, in general, outperform teachers without those attributes, exceptions abound. And a principal–who can interview the teacher candidate, talk to his or her references, even watch a mock lesson being taught–will have far better information than any regulator or bureaucrat with which to make a shrewd decision and maybe find a diamond in the rough.

Consider the experience of Teach for America. TFA recruits more teachers every year than all but the largest districts, and it seems to have cracked the code on identifying teachers who succeed in challenging classrooms. While the program is well-known for attracting Ivy League grads with lofty test scores, its unheralded genius is its extensive selection process (essays, interviews, practice lessons, etc.) that pinpoints subtle differences among candidates, differences that seem to predict classroom success. TFA has been particularly effective in finding individuals with high expectations. According to a survey released earlier this month, seven out of ten second-year TFA teachers disagree with the statement, “Students who don’t have basic skills by junior high or middle school will never be able to catch up,” and almost the same proportion believe that their own expectations have a significant impact on their students’ achievement.

NCLB’s obliviousness to such subtle indicators of quality is what makes its “highly qualified teachers” provision so maddening to many principals. Imagine a school leader in Appalachia who employs a dynamic, inspiring math teacher who gets great results in the classroom and helps all his students reach proficiency. Should the state or federal government care if that teacher majored in chemistry instead of math? How should that principal feel when told that this fine math teacher must jump through a bunch of hoops to meet the “subject matter competency” requirement? It makes you want to yell: “Cut the red tape! Peel back the bureaucrats! Trust the results!”

A Highly Qualified Boondoggle

And yet, the case for academic rigor is also strong. Mounds of evidence show that school districts have not made academic credentials a top priority when hiring teachers. To wit: According to the latest federal Schools and Staffing Survey, 38 percent of all middle- and high-school math teachers did not major or minor in math (or even math education). One-third of English teachers are also teaching “out of field,” as are 28 percent of science teachers, and about one-quarter of social studies teachers. To think that the people who hire teachers will suddenly change their ways and put a premium on academic credentials because of the pressure to raise test scores is to enter the zone of wishful thinking. After all, K 12 educators and ed-school professors have long downplayed the importance of subject-matter knowledge. One could even argue that the dominant cultural trait of the education system is anti-intellectualism. That’s not likely to change overnight without a strong push. And unless we can infuse the system with smart, well-educated teachers, it may never change.

Furthermore, even if a principal understands that he should recruit knowledgeable teachers, he lives with imperfect information. He lacks access to candidates’ Praxis scores, as well as their SAT results. And with trendy fads overwhelming the college curriculum, especially the obsession with “depth over breadth,” it’s hard to know whether even candidates with a major in their subject (say, history) actually know enough of the content that the state requires students to learn. Why not, at the least, require them to pass a test in that subject? Better yet, why not make their test scores (not just “pass” or “fail”) available to employers? The trifling inconvenience of making prospective teachers endure a test is a small price to pay for quality control. And if recruiting knowledgeable teachers with a passion for their subjects helps tamp down the progressivism that dominates our schools (“all that matters is learning to learn”), so much the better. Raise the bar! Down with mediocrity! Let’s start valuing intellectual pursuit!

Which brings us back to where we started. Can’t we have it both ways, giving principals more hiring flexibility (allowing them to engage uncertified teachers, for instance), with the single caveat that all teachers be knowledgeable in their subjects? Have we ever tried that? Enter Section 9101(23) of the No Child Left Behind Act, which explicitly exempts charter schools from the law’s requirement that schools hire certified teachers (at least in states where the charter law provides this same flexibility). It does not, however, exempt charters from the mandate that their teachers, too, demonstrate subject-matter competence in the subjects that they teach. So we have a nice natural experiment. Take Washington, D.C., where charter principals have almost unlimited freedom around hiring decisions, except that their teachers must “demonstrate subject matter competence” by passing a test, majoring in their field, or meeting the “High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation” (HOUSSE). Seems reasonable.

But how’s it playing out? It’s a mess. The subject exams (Praxis II in D.C.) aren’t offered very often, and for some subjects (arts, physics, some foreign languages) they aren’t offered at all. Almost four years into NCLB implementation, D.C. still doesn’t have a “HOUSSE” process. The rules for what counts as a “major” (set by the District of Columbia Public Schools–the charters’ main competitor) are arbitrary: 33 semester hours, of which 18 hours must be in 300-level courses and above. Consider the headaches of this respected D.C. charter school: “We had one Teach for America corps member with a mechanical engineering degree who was not ‘highly qualified’ to teach math or physics because he did not have enough credit hours in either subject. We had a teacher who was fluent in German, had passed the government tests in German, but was not ‘highly qualified’ to teach German. We had a teacher who was a talented artist and architect and a business major who was not qualified to teach the arts and architecture class.” In other words, charter principals are dealing with a thicket of confusion, paperwork, and one-size-fits-all regulations–exactly what they sought to escape when they “went charter.” Their autonomy has been severely curtailed.

What’s the lesson? It’s simply not possible to have it both ways. We must either give principals full autonomy to make hiring decisions, or we must require all teachers to demonstrate subject matter knowledge. Trust principals, or don’t. On which side of that divide are you?

Michael J. Petrilli is vice president of national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.


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