ESEA Should Set a National Standard That Improves Teacher Quality

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill known as the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), passed last month in a partisan vote by the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, would have a detrimental impact on the American education system and students’ access to qualified teachers. Of note, this legislation would repeal the national standard requiring teachers to be “highly qualified” in the subjects they teach.

The current version of ESEA, known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), mandates that (a) all teachers of core subjects must meet the federal definition of highly qualified in order to teach in schools that receive Title I funding and (b) low-income and minority children must not be disproportionately taught by unqualified, inexperienced, or out-of-field teachers. Because a loophole exists in current law that allows many teachers to bypass this standard, this provision should be strengthened—not eliminated. The current proposal to remove the definition of highly qualified teacher in the Student Success Act would further compromise efforts to promote and support an equitable distribution of certified, experienced, and effective teachers across PK-12 classrooms.

The Coalition for Teaching Quality was formed in 2011 to safeguard and strengthen the highly qualified teacher definition and the equitable distribution requirements. Comprising 93 national, state, and local organizations, the Coalition is committed to the principle that federal policy must ensure all students have access to teachers who enter the profession well-prepared to succeed. The Coalition, including AACTE, believes a federal definition of qualified teacher should stipulate full state certification and completion of a teacher preparation program before individuals can serve as teachers of record. Every other profession has standards for entry; teaching children should be no different.

NCLB’s teacher equity provision was an attempt by federal policy to remedy the inequitable distribution of qualified and effective teachers plaguing disadvantaged schools. In most cases, these schools are underresourced, low performing, and beset with poor working conditions, making it difficult to recruit and retain quality teachers. In order to rectify teacher shortages and disparities in the highest need schools, federal policy must support an increase in the supply of well-trained, certified teachers and support states and districts in improving policies and processes that recruit, hire, and retain qualified teachers who have demonstrated success in the classroom.

Rather than removing the definition of highly qualified teacher, the definition should be updated and strengthened, and the current loophole that allows teachers-in-training to be considered highly qualified should be eliminated. ESEA should define a qualified teacher as someone who has fully completed a state-approved traditional or alternative teacher preparation program and, where state law has mandated it, has passed a rigorous state-approved teacher performance assessment. This update recognizes the transformation going on in states all across the country around the adoption of teacher performance assessments, particularly edTPA.

Teacher quality cannot be properly addressed without first setting a national standard for entering the profession. The House Republican bill fails to bring any new ideas around the best way to do this. AACTE and the Coalition for Teaching Quality reject simplistic solutions of eliminating the only national standard for entering the teaching profession. Right now, we urgently need to set in motion a national effort to resolve the challenges our neediest, lowest performing schools face in recruiting and retaining well-prepared teachers. ESEA is intended to address the needs of low-income and minority students; we cannot allow the Student Success Act to compromise their right to a quality education and a successful future.

A version of this column also appeared in the National Journal’s “Education Insiders” blog.


Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE