No Recommendation Left Behind

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By Kate Walsh, NCTQ President

By now, nearly every Washington group has distributed its recommendations regarding the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. While we may be a little slower than most, we too are throwing our hat in the ring.

Without further ado, here are our fiscally responsible and mercifully brief recommendations for the reauthorization of NCLB--as well as a few goodies tossed in for the long overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

1. Require and fund states to develop good value-added systems to measure the effectiveness of both schools and teachers.

To ensure that students are taught by effective teachers, Congress should require every state to develop a value-added system linking individual teachers to students--and provide appropriate funding to help them do so. Teacher identifier data are crucial for tracking effectiveness over time.

2. Require states to identify a certain percentage of low performing teachers and develop plans to remove them from classrooms.

Congress should require states to identify a certain percentage--set by the state and not by Congress--of ineffective teachers and submit a plan for their timely removal. At the same time, states should also identify a percentage of top performing teachers. Congress should not mandate a specific plan for this important step towards greater accountability, but encourage innovation.

3. Establish national benchmarks for what we expect teachers to know.

Congress should establish a national commission that sets recommended cut scores on the nation's teacher licensing tests, even for those states that have their own. While this commission should not require that states adopt the recommended scores, it should require them to submit annual data showing whether they meet, exceed, or do not meet each recommended cut score.

4. Ensure that elementary teachers know how to teach reading.

Too many children are not receiving reading instruction that is grounded in science. Congress should revise the definition of a "Highly Qualified" elementary teacher to include a proviso that all new elementary teachers must pass a stand-alone test of scientifically-based reading instruction in order to be deemed HQT. Few states test teachers' knowledge of reading, and most that do use largely inadequate exams.

5. Boost requirements for middle school teacher qualifications.

The U.S Department of Education has failed to provide the clarity that states need on preparing academically qualified middle school teachers. Additionally, state policies have continued to allow too many elementary-trained educators to teach grades 7 and 8 in K-8 schools. Congress should allow middle school teachers to be considered "highly qualified" if they attain a passing score on a single subject licensing test, while also removing the requirement that teachers have a major in the subject they teach. Congress should disallow the use of "generalist" exams that cover all academic subjects as the basis for granting "highly qualified" status to anyone teaching grades 7 or 8.

6. Rate the effectiveness of principals.

If we want better teachers, we have to insist on better principals. Congress should seed innovations for fair and reliable ways to assign a performance rating to principals on a range of possible measures (controlling for poverty, adjusting for new assignments and school type), including student achievement data, teacher attendance, teacher turnover, student attendance and disciplinary actions.

7. Empower schools by increasing autonomy.

Too little has been done to see how principals perform when granted flexibility from bureaucratic constraints. Congress should study the effect of giving greater autonomy, not less, to schools not meeting AYP, by funding the creation of innovation schools in selected districts. For example, a new principal in such a school would be given the equivalent of the district's average salary of personnel in "cash" and the freedom to negotiate individual teacher contracts, a model that has been adopted--and found successful--in Sweden. This experiment could test the benefits of granting school leaders greater flexibility, and provide a model that could work on a larger scale in traditional public schools.

And on a related note, but to be housed in the HEA reauthorization:

8. Congress should require teacher preparation programs to be more selective and demonstrate results.

a. Congress should require institutions accepting federal money to require applicants to pass a basic skills admissions test, with a minimum passing score set by a national commission.

b. Congress should require states to aggregate and report value-added data for each school's graduates and to set measurable benchmarks for what constitutes unacceptable performance. More aggressive action is needed than what was included in the 1998 HEA reauthorization.

c. Congress should require states to report more meaningful pass rate data for teacher candidates taking licensing tests. The current proposal requiring institutions to report the pass rate for candidates completing 50 percent of their coursework is ambiguous and bound to lead to the same sort of gaming going on now. Requiring institutions to report pass rate data for any candidate entering student teaching would provide cleaner and more meaningful information.