Wednesday, November 5, 2008


There has been quite a bit of debate about highly qualified teachers (HQT) and I want to share my thoughts on the issue. But, before I do that, some background might help us better understand the HQT debate.

When President George W. Bush entered office in 2001, he launched the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), an education reform initiative influenced by similar initiatives he had introduced as governor of Texas. The basic premise of NCLB is to push for more accountability in education by linking federal funding for school districts to student performance and teacher competence, both of which must be measured by quantifiable data like standardized test scores.

One key requirement of NCLB is that all teachers must be highly qualified teachers by 2010. In the CNMI, the BOE has determined that in order to be HQT, among other things, one must pass the Praxis, a standardized test of content knowledge (i. e. how much teachers know about basic subjects like math and reading). To “motivate” teachers to acquire HQT status, the BOE laid out carrots (i. e. rewards) for teachers that pass the Praxis, and sticks (i. e. penalties) for teachers that fail. In short, if you passed the Praxis, you got a pay raise. If you failed, you got a pay cut.

Critics of HQT and the Praxis have argued that this system of sticks and carrots demoralizes the profession, especially for those who fail the Praxis. These critics point to the Western cultural bias of the Praxis and note that some very smart people are just not good test takers.

Furthermore, some have argued that rather than focus on highly qualified teachers, we should focus on highly effective teachers (HET). The argument goes that just because a teacher knows her subject matter, does not mean that she can teach it well or that students can and will learn it from that teacher. The current Praxis only tests one’s mastery of subject knowledge, but does not test for one’s ability to teach that knowledge.

As one who works closely with my own teachers, I believe that the HQT-HET debate kind of misses the point. Good teaching, and, in turn, good learning, come in many shapes and forms, shapes and forms that cannot and should not be limited to just HQT or HET. Just as good teaching and learning require a multi-faceted assessment that evaluates diverse aspects of student learning, we should use a multi-faceted assessment model of teachers that evaluates the many different aspects of teaching.

To be sure, our teachers should be highly qualified. But we should not limit ourselves to just one measurement instrument, the Praxis. We should consider alternative assessments of a teacher’s qualifications. We could, perhaps, require teachers to maintain current portfolios that reflect the many dimensions of that teacher’s skills, abilities, experience, and education.

Likewise, our teachers should be highly effective. However, we must move beyond standardized tests and use a variety of measurements to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. For example, how many of a teacher’s students participate in an extra-curricular activity? Or how many of a teacher’s students graduate, go off to college, or acquire meaningful employment after graduation? Standardized tests are just one reflection of a teacher’s effectiveness. We must consider all the ways in which a teacher is effective.

Furthermore, how we measure HQT and HET is as important as what we measure. In this regard, perhaps we should balance the end-product—student learning—with the growth process—teacher learning. While I am a big proponent of student learning, I also know that unless a teacher is growing personally and professionally, student learning will not happen. To grow, though, a teacher needs coaching and feedback from supervisors, mentors, peers, and students. For that to happen, we need to make time for principals and master teachers to conduct meaningful classroom observations, and encourage constructive student evaluations of teachers. Just as good assessment is not a penalty but a tool for student learning, good assessment of a teacher should not penalize her. It should help that teacher grow.

Beyond HQT and HET, though, lies the more important benchmark of a great teacher: HPT: Highly Performing Teachers. These are teachers that go above and beyond their lessons to advise extra-curricular activities, tutor students after school, and volunteer to help the school in other ways needed. These are the teachers that honestly assess themselves and are constantly looking for ways to grow and improve in their craft. These are the teachers that make great schools. These are the teachers that we need.

(For more information, check out this great article by Bess Keller for Education Week that reports on a teacher evaluation instrument that's helping teachers improve their craft.)