Monday, July 23, 2012

Spinning the Definition: an Analysis of "Highly Qualified"

It started with a really simple tweet:

Tweet in reference to Washington Post Answer Sheet
The article I referenced describes a decision by the US House of Representative Appropriations Subcommittee to extend the definition of "Highly Qualified Teachers" to include bachelor-degree holding candidates that are still in training to be a teacher or that have recently graduated from training preparation programs such as Teach for America.

I quickly became embroiled with @msmooreenglish, a TFA graduate, in a twitter chat that ranged through the meaning of Highly Qualified, the good and bad of TFA, and other issues. To be clear, my complaint is not with Teach for America or other teacher transition programs. I enjoyed my preparation at Bradley University, but I believe their should be other paths into the field and two of my most respected colleagues have come to education through transition-to-teaching programs (yes, i just went with the "but I have a fill-in-the-blank friend" defense).

My problem is that the requirements for Teach for America and the training that ensues, do not meet the standard of "highly qualified" that was in my head (note: this becomes an important distinction, later):
  • Requirements: Bachelors Degree, 2.5 minimum GPA, US Citizenship
  • Training: A five+ week institute that covers the teaching essentials: practice teaching, observation, feedback, reflection, lesson planning, curriculum and more.
  • Common State Requirement: Passing subject specific test
My counterpart was not arguing against me, but pointed out that Teach-for-America, in opposition to the Answer Sheet's characterization, has high standards of acceptance (fewer than 10% of applicants are accepted, GPA requirement, etc.) and that many of the people entering, herself included, do it to become teachers and not as a career stepping stone. While I think there are some statistical arguments that could be made in counter, she didn't disagree with the crux of my point:

Bachelors + 5 Weeks of training does not make one highly qualified.

I felt a blog post brewing, but realized that I didn't have enough information to make an informed argument about the differences yet. I quickly flipped to the Indiana DOE website to find the checklist for a traditional teacher, fully expecting to create a chart that would show in no uncertain terms what puts the "HIGHLY" in HQT.

My but that is a confusing and not very explanatory or user-friendly site.

So I went to which was MUCH clearer. According to the site (other states are similar - some more and some less rigorous), to be a highly qualified teacher in Indiana...Get ready:
  • Bachelor's Degree
  • Completion of a teacher preparation program (traditional or transition available). This MAY require a basic skills test for math, reading, and writing, but there are opt-out paths.
  • And a subject specific test
Now, we could nitpick a few things here:

  • Teach-for-America is working hard to place math and science and asks candidates to be open to the area in which they will teach, so you could argue that candidates will be placed out of their field of expertise -- but that not generally the experience of TFA candidates and, regardless, a subject mastery state test is relatively common.
  • You could argue that semesters of classes and longer periods of reflection and feedback make for a stronger preparation than a 5-week summer school intensive (I probably would make that argument, but not strongly).
  • We could read a lot into the political, economic, and motivational reasons for getting as many teachers classroom ready as possible in a time where staff is being cut and people are leaving the teaching field because of workplace conditions, lack of job security, and a feeling disempowerment with regard to how they are viewed as professionals (psst...that's you "value-added-metrics").

But, for now, lets just talk about definitions:

In order to be a HIGHLY QUALIFIED TEACHER in the United States, you need the standard degree beyond High School, some training in classroom management and a little practical experience, and some demonstration that you know your subject matter.
  • A doctor who graduates medical school with a lot of clocked classroom hours, tons of testing, and a not-insignificant number of hours of clinical, hands-on experience becomes a licensed doctor called a "resident" -- because they still need three or more years of supervised practice (although they do get to wear the long coat)
  • Lawyers who pass the bar may join firms with strong training programs as become junior associates. {see comments below}
  • Mechanics, plumbers, construction workers apprentice for a time period before getting the titles of Journeyman or Master
The dictionary definition of "highly qualified" is roughly "fulfilling necessary requirements to a high degree" ( of "highly" and "qualified"). I believe the common-man definition also includes the secondary implication that they are "high in the hierarchy" -- or in other words, not novices.

But, and this might be important, in education "Highly Qualified" is the common man equivalent to "MINIMALLY Qualified" or if that is too harsh, "Basically Qualified."

I am sure that it sounds much better in a political stump speech to say that we want every teacher to be "highly" qualified. But the common man implication of that term does not match the reality of the beginning teacher. We become highly qualified as we have experience, reflect on practices and techniques that work and don't work in the actual day-to-day grind and get feedback from our peers and supervisors.

We should not be classifying our teachers based on what sounds good in a soundbyte. We should not give any teacher designations which make parents and students believe something that is not true. It is word-play like this that makes it more difficult to justify professional development dollars or release time for master teachers to mentor. It becomes easier to discount the impact of an experienced educator on the life and learning of a child It becomes more likely that parents will trade in the teacher-student relationship for a low-cost, low-quality youtube video that walks through the steps of a problem without addressing its meaning.

Rather than debate on whether one particular training program should be given the golden ticket of being qualified to teach a class without hand-holding, lets go back to the basics of what we should expect in teacher preparation and, more importantly, in those critical three years when the teacher is first introduced to the classroom. Let's not only "raise the bar" for teachers, but give them the support they need after they get their certification. Let's acknowledge that a new teacher is not yet "highly" qualified, but can get there with time and effort while at the same time providing an environment that allows students to succeed.

People learn by reflection on their experiences. Its true of students in the classroom. Its true of teachers beginning their careers. Let's honor the learning process in our schools -- and ask the politicians to do the same.