Can ESEA Improve Teacher Quality?

by Andrea Jachman
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 2, May 2002, Within Our Reach: Higher Student Achievement

The high-profile debate over testing requirements in the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, has all but eclipsed the bill's sweeping teacher quality mandates. To some observers, the emphasis is misplaced. Test scores can be valuable, they say, but scores aren't going to increase just because you test kids—they're going to go up because you improve teacher quality.

That said, there is plenty in this bill to make advocates of teacher quality happy. First and foremost, the bill recognizes that teaching matters. It reflects a commitment to improving teacher quality and backs up that commitment with significant new dollars. "The conversation around teacher quality is becoming more sophisticated," observes Peter Winograd, director of the Center for Teacher Education and Educational Policy at the University of New Mexico, "And that can only be good for our kids."

Some critics of the bill say the deadlines are too tight, the funding insufficient, and the requirements too stringent to put a qualified teacher in every classroom. Others argue that the bill does not go far enough—that it should have provided more guidance, more rigorous standards, and a greater emphasis on state- level leadership.

And what needs to be in place for the bill's vision to be realized? Time. Money. Respect. This is what teachers, advocates, administrators, and researchers say teachers need to stay committed to their chosen profession. Further, reform must be both deliberative and collaborative, and requires input and dedication from stakeholders at every level of the system.

The question remains whether this legislation provides the mechanisms to accomplish these ambitious goals. Legislation can allocate dollars and set rules, but it cannot mandate a shift in how teaching is conceptualized and regarded, which some believe is critical to improving teacher quality. Whatever one's position, the teacher-quality mandates are significant—and will pose significant challenges for schools, districts, and states in the years to come.

New Definitions of Highly Qualified Teachers and Paraprofessionals

Perhaps the most widely known teacher-quality provision of ESEA is that beginning with the school year 2002-2003, all teachers hired and teaching under a program funded by Title I must be "highly qualified." By 2005-2006, all public school teachers must meet this standard. This means that

  • All teachers must have obtained full certification or licensure with no requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis.

  • New elementary school teachers must have at least a bachelor's degree and pass a state test demonstrating subject knowledge and teaching skills.

  • New middle and secondary school teachers must have at least a bachelor's degree and either demonstrate competence in their subject area(s) or have an academic major or coursework equivalent to a major, graduate degree, or advanced certification.

  • Veteran teachers must have at least a bachelor's degree and either meet the requirements above or demonstrate competence based on a "high, objective, and uniform" standard set by the state.

The bill also lays out stronger requirements for paraprofessionals, to be achieved within the same time frame. To be considered highly qualified, paraprofessionals working in a program funded with Title I monies must meet one of these requirements:

  • completed at least two years of postsecondary study,

  • obtained an associate's degree, or

  • met a rigorous standard of quality and can demonstrate through a formal state or local assessment, knowledge of and the ability to assist in reading, writing, and mathematics instruction.

States must submit a plan to achieve these teacher and paraprofessional goals and must provide a mechanism by which teacher-quality data is made readily available to parents. Local education agencies that fail to show improvement within two years must develop an improvement plan with technical assistance from the state. After three years, the state and district must agree on how the district's funds will be used, and a freeze on the hiring of paraprofessionals is imposed.

What may prove most burdensome for this region, however, is coping with the number of teachers on emergency credentials and those teaching out of field or out of grade.

The states in SEDL's region—Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas—generally fare well in comparison with these teacher standards (see table below); in some cases, states hold even higher requirements. Every state has areas of critical teacher shortages that will continue to be a challenge to fill. What may prove most burdensome for this region, however, is coping with the number of teachers on emergency credentials and those teaching out of field or out of grade. According to Westat statistics provided under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education, 32,228, or 11.5%, of all Texas teachers are not fully certified. In Louisiana, that percentage climbs to 15.2 overall; particularly disturbing is that 23.3% of teachers in Louisiana's high poverty schools are not fully certified. This is a seriously disproportionate number of underqualified teachers—precisely where the best teachers are needed most. Many wish the bill had gone further toward equalizing the distribution of qualified teachers.

Meeting ESEA Requirements in the SEDL Region
New Mexico
Requires elementary teachers to pass a basic skills test in reading, writing, and math Yes Yes Yes Yes *
Requires elementary teachers to pass a “knowledge of teaching” test Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Requires middle and high school teachers to pass a subject-area test Yes Yes   Yes Yes
Requires middle junior high, or high school teachers to hold a subject area major          
For all grade levels, requires a subject-area major rather than an education major         Yes

Excerpted from No State Left Behind: The Challenges and Opportunities of ESEA 2001. Education Commission of the States, February 2002.
* Texas requires teachers to pass a test in reading, writing, and math prior to admission to state teacher preparation programs. All states require at least a bachelor's degree to teach at all grade levels.

The new teacher qualification guidelines highlight existing tensions in education. For example, ESEA supports the identification and implementation of alternative routes to the classroom and, some educators say, favors subject-area knowledge over teaching knowledge. Critics say that creating more avenues into the profession lowers the bar, particularly if pedagogical knowledge is not taken into account, and weakens efforts to retool teaching as a career that is every bit as professional as law or business. Advocates say that more avenues mean more diversity, stronger subject knowledge, and an easing of teacher shortages. The debate over these related issues is passionately argued by both sides. Potentially, this legislation finds middle ground by supporting alternative routes while holding these teachers to the same standards as those who pass through traditional programs.

The means by which teachers' knowledge and skills are tested have also come under fire, with many in the education field arguing that existing tests are not rigorous enough and thus are not a good measure of a "highly qualified" teacher. "When I took it in 1986, the teacher's test was worse than a joke," says Cathy Hord, a 25-year veteran of Texas schools. "It was a slap in the face." In recent years, more attention has been paid to measuring teachers' knowledge and abilities. Texas, for example, will implement a new teacher certification test in the fall of 2002 that is aligned with statewide standards. Arkansas has taken the unusual step of requiring new teachers to pass the Praxis III, an expensive performance assessment that evaluates all aspects of a beginning teacher's practice and typically takes place during the first year of teaching. Louisiana teachers must undergo a local team evaluation to reach the second stage of certification.

In spite of the challenges, no one is complaining that the standards are too high. Arturo Almendarez, Texas deputy commissioner for programs and instruction, reflects the opinion of many when he says, "It is a difficult but necessary standard. If we're really serious about educating all children, this is what needs to be done."

More Recruiting and Training Dollars for Teachers and Administrator

Title II of the ESEA consolidates the existing funding from the Eisenhower and Class Size Reduction Programs into a single Teacher Quality grant program. States are given considerable flexibility in prioritizing their disbursement. Activities might include, but are not limited to

  • Recruiting highly qualified teachers, principals, and administrators
  • Creating or expanding mentoring programs
  • Reforming tenure systems
  • Establishing merit pay systems
  • Revisiting alternative licensure and certification programs
  • Reducing class size
  • Providing technology instruction to teachers Every state in this region has made strides toward improving teacher quality in recent years.

In many cases, the act validates existing programs and provides additional funds for their expansion. All five states in SEDL's region, for example, provide mentoring, induction, and other support programs for beginning teachers. All five have also adopted alternative certification policies, with Arkansas, New Mexico, and Texas programs being rated as exemplary by the National Center for Education Information. In fact, according to Education Week's Quality Counts 2002, Arkansas and Oklahoma ranked fifth and sixth in the nation respectively in teacher quality overall.

Additional Provisions of the ESEA Related to Teacher Quality

In addition to those provisions detailed here, ESEA

  • Provides grants to state education departments and high-need school districts to recruit and retain mid-career professionals and recent graduates through alternative routes to certification.

  • Provides grants to partnerships that provide professional development for early childhood educators who work with children from low-income families in high-needs communities.

  • Provides additional funding for Troops to Teachers, a program that facilitates a transition from the military into the classroom.

  • Encourages states and schools to work with institutions of higher education to improve math and science teacher education.

  • Explicitly prohibits the creation of a national teacher test or certification.

  • Takes steps to protect teachers from lawsuits.

What Must Be in Place to Succeed?

Among those administrators and policymakers interviewed for this article, there is general agreement that the combination of mandates and flexibility means that states must be very strategic about how their money is used.

To start with, reform must be collaborative and creative. Says Deputy State Superintendent Susanna Murphy of New Mexico, "We must make sure that legislators are in the loop, that they don't pursue these isolated good ideas that can jolt a systemic approach and cause more work." Such collaboration must include stakeholders at every level of the system.

Professional development must be sustained. The "spray and pray" approach of isolated workshops and one-time seminars, while certainly the least-expensive course, is far from the most cost-effective. Money and time must be focused on long-term strategies that are known to work, such as mentoring programs. Further, all professional development must be truly linked to what goes on in the classroom—especially with regard to standards-based reform.

For More Information

For more information about policies and practices related to teacher quality and preparation in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, see

For more information about the ESEA, visit the Department of Education Web site,

the Education Commission for the States Web site,

and the Education Week Web site,

Above all, teachers must be supported in their work. Frequently, this comes down to compensation. "How to make the profession more desirable in terms of pay is a crucial issue that's never fully attended to," remarks Michael Davis, New Mexico state superintendent of public instruction. While regional salaries are not the lowest (indeed, starting salaries for Texas teachers are among the highest in the nation), average salaries for teachers in all five states fall below the national average of $41,820—in some cases, far below.

But compensation is only one piece of the teacher support puzzle. Attention must be paid to working conditions, which encompass many issues: having great responsibility but little authority, not being supported when dealing with problem students, lacking curricular support, and feeling isolated. Observes Arkansas middle-school teacher Becky Adams, "Just to hear administrators acknowledge the job you've done or give credit where credit is due can go a long way." Administrators must also show commitment to reform by providing time and incentives for professional development and for teachers to collaborate with and learn from their expert colleagues.

Finally, there is a call nationwide for the professionalization of the career. The myth that teaching is the easiest job in the world persists and works against attempts to gain greater benefits and recognition for our nation's dedicated educators. Some see positive signs in this legislation. "The fact that it insists on highly qualified teachers in the classroom is a big step in the right direction,"says Holly Eaton, a staff attorney for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. "It will force states and districts to take steps to make the profession more attractive. It will force them to do the right thing."

The reauthorized ESEA gives states and districts the potential to address all of these issues—but does not mandate it. As Barnett Berry of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality notes, "Policy cannot mandate what matters most. We can try to capitalize on policy, but it requires leadership and vision, and a lot of push from a number of quarters to turn what could be the sow's ear into a silk purse. There is great opportunity, but no guarantee."

Andrea Jachman is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in the education and nonprofit sectors.

Next Article: Celebrating Diversity to Support, Student Success