- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

A “highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2005-2006.” That is the noble goal of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation and it is one year away.

It sounds great. Who wants anyone other than a highly qualified teacher in every classroom?

Better yet, NCLB seems to offer a clear path to that goal. In order to be considered highly qualified, all teachers must hold bachelor’s degrees, demonstrate competency in the subject matter they teach and have full state teacher certification. Foolproof, right?

Not so fast, my friend! I’ve been around the educational scene for nearly half a century as a mathematics teacher, and as I applied some logical reasoning to this situation, I saw land mines ahead for NCLB — ones that should alarm any parent, grandparent, school board member or member of Congress who thinks this law will bring new quality to classrooms. The result will very likely be the opposite of the law’s intent: fewer, rather than more, qualified mathematics teachers.

Here’s the sobering math on mathematics teachers in the United States.:

Fact 1. An acute shortage of mathematics teachers now exists. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in some states 40 percent to 60 percent of the middle/secondary students are in mathematics classes taught by teachers without a major or minor in mathematics.

Fact 2. Many current mathematics teachers are not highly qualified. In October 2003, the Council of Chief State School Officers reported that in 2000, “only about two-thirds of secondary teachers in science and mathematics would meet the current NCLB criteria of highly qualified.”

Fact 3. More students are taking more mathematics classes in high school, creating a demand for more mathematics teachers.

Fact 4. The number of newly certified mathematics teachers graduating from colleges and universities has decreased dramatically as opportunities in technology and other higher-paying jobs have increased.

Given the above, it will take a miracle to have a highly qualifiedmathematics teacher in every classroom by 2005-2006.

That’s where the states come in. One way to get more “highly qualified mathematics teachers” in classrooms would be to pay them more. The states could decide to raise the salaries of all teachers or raise just the salaries of teachers in high-need areas. The first option is unrealistic in the face of ever-diminishing state budgets. The second — even if the money could be found to pay for it — will not be popular with teachers’ unions and some professional organizations.

That leaves the most likely option, one that pulls off the miracle of a highly qualified teacher in every classroom through the magic of semantics.

NCLB lets each state set its own certification requirements, so one cheap and therefore tempting solution would be to declare that anyone currently teaching is by definition highly qualified. Another easy solution is to lower the certification requirements to make them easier to meet. This might take the form of less mathematics-content requirements as well as reduction or elimination of professional education in mathematics teaching.

Adjusting certification requirements could provide the wiggle room needed for states to report they have highly qualified teachers in every mathematics classroom. One byproduct of this type of maneuvering will be to loosen the reins and bypass teacher education programs as well as professional organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, from their roles in ensuring the quality and professionalism of mathematics teachers.

The danger is that federal legislation that was intended to improve teacher quality will in fact encourage states to relax standards. In fact, it is already happening. For example, teachers certified in one area may be allowed to teach in another area, and be reported as highly qualified. The Department of Education has already released revisions related to rural teachers that water down the highly qualified expectations to accommodate requests from a number of states. The potential result: teachers officially categorized as highly qualified may, in fact, by any objective measure, not be qualified.

The public should particularly be distressed that there will be no way to know. School superintendents and principals will not be eager to report such information. Neither will state education authorities. Surveys will report that all teachers are highly qualified, and that there are no shortages of mathematics teachers.

Voila: The states have fulfilled the mandated requirement, federal funds will continue to flow and the problem has been solved!

Perhaps the NCLB is a blueprint that will resolve some educational problems. However, with regard to having highly qualified mathematics teachers in every classroom, I think the NCLB’s stated goal is close to fantasy.

It seems more likely that states will develop plans designed to satisfy the spirit of the law (i.e., seek political solutions) and the term highly qualified will become an educational anomaly forever associated with the NCLB. If so, then we should all be outraged.

Professional organizations, parents, boards of education and the media must be on their guard against such simple but illusory solutions. We should express our contempt for them when they surface, and push for real solutions that will actually help students.

Robert Reys is a curator’s professor of mathematics education at University of Missouri.

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