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Time Will Tell if No Child is Left Behind

As the new year begins, local school districts will continue to address the requirements of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The intent of this comprehensive education reform plan is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to receive a high quality education. Time will tell if this noble piece of legislation will meet its goals. As it looks now, NCLB in Pennsylvania will actually lower the qualification standards of teachers in Pennsylvania.

Under NCLB, school districts are required to demonstrate accountability in several areas. These include performance on state learning standards for all students, including those with disabilities, limited English proficiency, economic disadvantage, and those represented in major ethnic categories. Recognizing the important role that teacher assistants (paraprofessionals) play in student learning, school districts must also provide evidence that the districts' paraprofessionals have the knowledge of and ability to assist in reading, writing, and mathematics instruction.

Perhaps the most perplexing component of NCLB is the reference to the preparation and demonstration of "highly qualified teachers." Although school districts are required to show that all new elementary and secondary teachers are highly qualified, the proposed routes for obtaining "qualification" runs against Pennsylvania's history of high standards for teacher preparation and current policy and practice.

The ability to take examinations becomes more important than the ability to demonstrate knowledge and skills in teaching students at an identified level and subject.

In Pennsylvania, teacher candidates currently enrolled in teacher preparation programs must complete a rigorous state-approved program. They are required to demonstrate a 3.0 grade point average, show evidence of mastery of content knowledge and teaching skills via coursework and numerous field experiences (including student teaching), and successfully complete a battery of state assessments (PRAXIS) before they receive a teaching certificate. In addition to these components, college and university faculty monitor student competency in the use of oral and written language, social and emotional maturity, as well as the behavioral integrity of teacher candidates.

Pennsylvania has higher certification requirements than most states. The intent of the NCLB Act is to raise the requirements for teacher certification in those states where almost anyone can receive some form of teaching certificate and stand in front of a class of students. Under the NCLB Act, state education agencies are working towards approval of alternative routes to teacher certifications that include "flexible and accelerated pedagogical training."

These programs would enable "mid-career professionals" and those with military experience to be eligible for teacher certification within a reduced period of time, relying on the experience, expertise, and academic qualification of individuals or other factors in lieu of traditional course work in the field of education.

In other words, individuals could complete a "hit and run" route to teacher certification, very different from the high standard programs that Pennsylvania has traditionally required. Furthermore, although the details are not yet clarified, individuals with current teaching certificates may obtain additional certification in other areas upon completion of specialty content tests, despite the absence of coursework or field experiences in that content area.

For example, a person certified as a Driver's Education instructor could take the Elementary Education test, pass it, and be certified to teach in that area. The ability to take examinations becomes more important than the ability to demonstrate knowledge and skills in teaching students at an identified level and subject.

What does this mean for children? By certifying individuals to teach without proper coursework, field experiences, and efficient monitoring, we ignore what we have known for many years. Learning is compromised when individuals placed in charge of a classroom lack understanding of child and adolescent development, motivation and its relationship to learning, classroom management, and research-supported teaching strategies.

The State Board of Education approved many of these certification changes in November 2002 without prior discussion or public comment. School administrators and parents of school-aged children should consider the implications of these changes on the quality of public education. There is little reason to believe that a high scoring test taker or a person who has completed an abbreviated teacher preparation program standing in front of the class will lead to an improved quality of education for our children.

Sarah DeHaas is an associate professor of education at Juniata College.