Does Teacher Proficiency Matter?

The State DOE trumpeted the news last week: 99.7% of New Jersey classroom teachers are Highly Qualified! Declared Education Commissioner Lucille Davy, this victory “represent(s) one of the many ways we assure citizens that their children are receiving the best education possible.”

Sure, the Highly Qualified tag is a requirement of No Child Left Behind, and in 2005 N.J. was embarrassed by a Fed analysis that there was a 10% gap between the percentage of Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) in low poverty and high poverty districts. Now the gap is down to 0.8%; no more red faces and, supposedly, model teachers in each classroom, regardless of district income level.

In this age of measuring education quality through assessment, the designation of Highly Qualified Teacher surely must count for something, right?

That’s unclear, even to the NJ DOE. Its 2006 report, “New Jersey’s Plan for Meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher Goal,” comprises 87 pages of the history of the disparity of HQT’s in high and low income districts and N.J.’s efforts to ameliorate the inequity. By 2006, 96% of teachers were already highly qualified and the disparity was down to 7%. Indeed, the DOE successfully reduced the difference every year so that Davy can boast, three years later, that we’re at 99.7% across the board and the discrepancy between high and low income districts is 0.8%. But here’s the question: does it matter?

Here’s the conclusion from the DOE’s 2006 report: “The NJ DOE acknowledges the importance of having highly qualified teachers in every classroom (p.39)."

Here’s the other conclusion from the DOE’s 2006 report: The Pearson linear and correlation coefficient, which “is a very weak 0.0602,” "strongly suggests that the quartile comparison cited elsewhere is misleading and that in fact HQT average is not a dominant factor in poor performance in high quality schools (p.51, Appendix C)."

The HQT designation is important to students. The HQT designation is not important to students. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

What’s a Highly Qualified Teacher anyway? Since 1985, teachers in N.J. have to prove competency by having an undergraduate major in their field, or by earning 30 credits, or by having National Board Certification. In addition, they have to pass ETS’s Praxis test in their area of expertise. (Veteran teachers have been able to fulfill requirements by using the High Objective Uniform State Evaluation (HOUSE) Standard Content Knowledge Matrix, which lets them bypass the requirements through accruing 10 points in college coursework, professional development courses, and seniority, but it’s being phased out now.)

So, it’s college coursework, plus passing ETS’s Praxis test, which purports to assess a teacher’s content knowledge. New Jersey, in fact, is one of 48 states (California and Texas use their own in-house tests) that uses the Praxis, a multiple-choice, two-hour exam. Let’s look at one of them – the Mathematics Content Knowledge, 10061, taken by all new middle school and high school teachers in N.J. Every state gets to set its own passing grade. The highest possible grade is 200 and the lowest possible grade is 100. According to Eduinsights, Colorado sets the highest bar, requiring a score of 156, which equates to correctly answering 63% of the questions. Arkansas has the lowest bar, a passing rate of 116, which equates to correctly answering 20% of the questions. New Jersey is in the middle. To meet the requirements of a Highly Qualified Teacher in N.J., you need a score of 137, i.e., correctly answer 42% of the questions.

Is the test so difficult? Not according to ETS: “The Praxis Series tests are intended to measure the knowledge, skills, or abilities that groups of experts determine to be important for a beginning teacher.” Let’s say the Math Praxis II is more difficult than the others. (It may be. Derrell Bradford of E3 notes in a post on the Special Review Assessment that 42% of prospective N.J. math teachers, including 2/3 of minority applicants, failed.) But as NCLB keeps pushing the bar up for students and as N.J. implements more rigorous high school graduation requirements, shouldn’t our teachers’ proficiency be an item of discussion?

Why is a score of 42% adequate? Do we need a No Teacher Left Behind law? How can we justify mandating increased proficiency levels for kids without mandating increased proficiency levels for teachers?

Either teacher proficiency matters or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t matter, we should give up the farce of requiring content knowledge tests with a passing rate of 42%. If it does matter, then perhaps it’s time to not only ask more from our students but also ask more of our teachers.

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