The conception of teacher competence animating NCLB can be traced to the landmark 1966 Coleman Report. As a part of America’s War on Poverty, Coleman, a sociologist, examined educational opportunity in the US, finding that school funding did not impact educational outcomes as much as teacher quality did. Part of what Coleman identified is what has come to be known as the maldistribution of qualified teachers. In the United States, poor children and children from historically underrepresented groups are disproportionately assigned to the weakest teachers –– a situation that persists to this day. International comparisons reveal that the United States stands out in this maldistribution problem: our country’s disparities in students’ access to qualified teachers is among the largest in the world.
Coleman’s formulation has had a continuous impact on notions of teacher quality. Numerous subsequent studies have verified positive associations between student achievement and teachers’ academic qualifications. This relationship has been confirmed through correlations between student outcomes with teachers’ scores on various standardized exams; and level of teachers’ content knowledge, usually proxied through course-taking counts; and years of teaching experience.
NCLB is animated by this legacy. The law sought to address the maldistribution problem by legislating a definition of teacher quality by mandating highly qualified teachers in every classroom. True to the Coleman logic, highly qualified teachers, according to NCLB, are those with full certification, a college degree, and demonstrated content knowledge in the subject being taught.
However, the legal definition of highly qualified has left much open to debate. For instance, in the description of highly qualified teachers, the word “student” only appears once, and then only as a moderating adjective.
In other words, the relational work of teaching is completely ignored. Social, emotional, and cultural knowledge does not come through the policy text, nor does the specialized content knowledge teachers require to effectively represent and cultivate students’ understanding –– what Shulman called pedagogical content knowledge. In light of these omissions, the definition of highly qualified teachers may not reach deeply enough into the kinds of knowledge and qualities teachers need to best serve students living in poverty, thus potentially undermining part of the law’s intent.
Research on teachers of historically underserved students emphasizes that effective teachers engage particular forms of knowledge as well as the moral and political qualities, emphasizing cultural knowledge and a commitment for social justice and change, as well as pointing to organizational structures and collegial practices that support more equitable outcomes. Furthermore, the law’s emphasis on teachers and not teaching conflates teacher qualifications with quality teaching, which are not interchangeable. Organizational supports, colleagues and other resources contribute to what is possible instructionally, aside from an individual’s training.
In the end, the highly qualified teacher clause sets a minimum standard, but given the pragmatic demands of legislation, it falls short of more professionalizing notions of teacher quality. There is a huge difference between competence in rote instruction and what has been termed “ambitious instruction” –– teaching that strives to include as many children as possible in rich forms of content.
There is not an obvious mapping between the qualifications outlined in NCLB and ambitious instruction. Although the research on teacher quality following the Coleman report related teacher characteristics to student outcomes, ambitious teaching aims for a higher bar. Even under the best versions of traditional instruction, not enough children learned in ways that would support them in developing robust understandings of content. In one study investigating links between “highly qualified” teachers and more effective instruction, neither certification nor formal education within a subject predicted the use of ambitious methods; however, the combination of subject training and subject-specific pedagogical training did.