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A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? Appraising Old Answers and New Ideas

reviewed by Daniel Katz - 2005

coverTitle: A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? Appraising Old Answers and New Ideas
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess, Andrew J. Rotherham, Kate Walsh
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1891792202, Pages: 326, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

One of the enduring aspects of compulsory education is its ability to respond to waves of political pressure and societal exigency. Concerns about the changing demographics of American society and its schools contributed to The Cardinal Principles of Education (National Education Association of the United States, 1918). The launch of Sputnik in 1957 resulted in near frantic calls for revising the standard science education curriculum. Discontent with America ’s economic competitiveness contributed to A Nation at Risk (1983) and the prominent policy trends of the past two decades: standards and testing, teacher professionalization, and school choice/vouchers.

Riding these waves was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001, popularly known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). The legislation required that schools tighten accountability through increased testing of student achievement, offered parents of students in schools designated as failing funds to send their children to different schools or to seek education services in both the private and public sectors and demanded that states ensure that all classrooms have a “qualified teacher” by the 2005-2006 school year. It is this final provision and its connection to a variety of efforts to enhance teacher quality that is the topic of A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? edited by Frederich M. Hess, Andrew J. Rotherman, and Catherine B. Walsh.

Teacher qualifications, although timely, is hardly a new issue. As Andrew J. Rotherman and Sara Mead note in the first chapter, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) was founded in 1950 (p. 38), but it was the heavy focus upon accountability and standards following A Nation At Risk that convinced many policy makers to take a hard look at how we measure the effectiveness of teachers and what methods of teacher preparation work. Throughout the 80s and 90s, a number of models emerged, most prominently teacher professionalization as exemplified by organizations such as NCATE, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC), among others that exist in an interconnecting relationship of perspectives and actors. NCLB has provided a renewed outlet for these groups to promote their methods of ensuring that all teachers are “highly qualified”.

But what, in fact, do we know? If we are to meet the challenges of NCLB, it will not do to simply lurch about guessing what makes a teacher “highly qualified.” The editors of this volume gathered together a wide range of ideas and research to answer essential questions for the readers. First, the authors provide an overview of the historic landscape of teacher licensure. Second, they examine the status of what we know about teacher quality, and finally, various contributors explore a range of options for the future. While not offering definitive answers, the volume should help policy makers engage in a lively debate about their options instead of relying solely upon familiar, if questionable, methods of teacher preparation and licensure.

According to Dan Goldhaber’s third chapter, the most basic reason that states license teachers is “to regulate who may enter the teaching profession” (p. 79). This is sensible. Teaching entails a tremendous responsibility to communities, parents, and students alike, but the field is vast with over 2.5 million practitioners and over 200,000 newly licensed teachers annually. As the NCTAF report, What Matter Most: Teaching For America’s Future, noted in 1996: “The problem of teacher incompetence represents a tiny fraction of the overall teaching force, but in each case where it is left unaddressed, it undermines public confidence and harms hundreds of students” (p. 100). The logic of licensure assumes that without entrance requirements and some level of control over teacher preparation, the number of unqualified teachers would surely increase.

While this is a reasonable assumption, it also clearly rests upon a particular premise: that we know what makes someone qualified to teach and that we know how to produce teachers who meet those qualifications. Unfortunately, that confidence appears misplaced. Distressingly little is known about what kinds of teacher education practices and which kinds of licensure requirements actually ensure quality teachers in the classroom. For example, what is the quality of university coursework that prepares teachers? According to David Leal in the fourth chapter, Assessing Traditional Teacher Preparation, we should note that “the pass rates on state certification exams were about 95 percent. This suggests that either the exams were unchallenging or that contemporary education students are very highly skilled” (p. 113). Further, analyses of the curricula at colleges of teacher education in the following chapter do not indicate that such programs “are doing an adequate job of conveying fundamental, broad-based knowledge and skills to prospective teachers” (p. 140). The data appear tenuous at best, and even less research supports the belief that we know how state leverage on teacher preparation functions to ensure quality.

Such doubt should not come as a surprise. Long standing folk wisdom in teaching insists that the craft is learned by doing, and generations of teachers have insisted upon the limited utility of university course work. Further, David Cohen (1995) noted that there are weak relationships, at best, between enhancing teacher knowledge and enhancing commitment to teaching and to values, also critical attributes of a quality teacher. We may be able to define what quality teachers are able to do. We may be able to catalog and identify teachers whose work offers exemplars for their peers. But we are less able to explain how those teachers became who they are in the classroom, and we are even less able to point to specific requirements in licensure requirements that likely had a positive impact.

Given this, what to do? The last part of the book offers a range of options for licensure, ranging from the familiar to the radical. Gary Sykes details a more rigorous approach to traditional licensure and standards, drawing upon standards-based efforts in Connecticut . Bryan Hassel and Michele Sherburne’s chapter argues for states to approve multiple providers of teacher preparation, including entities outside of higher education. Catherine Walsh argues forcefully that undergraduate education coursework is overrated, and that teacher preparation should guarantee a rigorous undergraduate education. Finally, Michael Podgursky argues for the near elimination of all teacher licensure oversight, relying upon market forces to weed out programs that produce ill-prepared teachers.

These possibilities are intriguing and ought to spark significant debate among policy makers, but how convincing are each set of ideas? Gary Sykes’ chapter offers a comprehensive set of recommendations to tighten licensure and ensure quality, using the Connecticut reforms as an example. Although overall evidence of how to improve teacher quality via state requirements is tenuous, Sykes claims that “the evidence suggests that their comprehensive approach…was at least a significant contributing factor (in student gains)” (p. 195). However, considering the historic difficulty of leveraging lasting gain, policy makers may want to wait for more comprehensive studies of the Connecticut system before investing in replication of it.

The remaining models, however, are even more speculative. Hassel and Sherburne suggest that multiple providers could effectively prepare teachers if states developed a portfolio requirement for licensure candidates and maintained the authority to decertify providers that do not prepare qualified teachers. If the professionalization model has limited evidence in its favor, this model has even less, and the authors, while recognizing that it hinges upon candidates and school districts using market choices to “weed out” weak programs, are less clear on safeguards to ensure that. 

Catherine Walsh’s focus upon the quality of undergraduate education is intriguing, and, certainly, many people would welcome a renewed interest in a thorough liberal arts education that leaves candidates proficient in both thinking and communication. However, this is surely a reason to call for all undergraduate education to examine itself, and it ignores two significant issues for teacher education. As anyone who has attended a university can attest, expert knowledge does not translate to pedagogic knowledge. Walsh assumes too close a connection in these domains. Further, by calling for all education courses and practicum experiences to be contained in the last two years of college, her model would not help those poorly suited for classroom work to exit, and, in fact, it offers candidates the chance to avoid both education classes and student teaching if they can still pass a state examination. One advantage of early education course and field work is its potential to help candidates recognize whether or not they are suited to teach – provided that focus exists in the curriculum.

Most radical is Michael Podgursky’s call for states to essentially eliminate their role in certifying teacher education programs and providing teacher licenses. The chapter begins with a legitimate reminder that we know very little about the direct link between licensure requirements, teacher quality, and student achievement. Podgursky also reminds us that “school administrators are in a much better position to assess teacher quality than are state regulators…” (p. 258). Podgursky uses the examples of industrial trainers, community college faculty, private tutoring firms, and private school teachers as examples that licensure is not needed to provide quality – without noting that most of these examples work in very narrow subjects of specialization and all can select their clientele. More questionable is the assurance that teacher education providers who do not produce qualified practitioners will be weeded out by the market as school districts and potential teachers bypass them in favor of quality providers.

This is the same faith in markets that drives a wide range of school choice and market driven school advocates. However, this faith misunderstands market economies. While it is true that competition forces improvement, it is also true that businesses compete for different segments of the population. The market means that most people can find affordable food, but it does not guarantee that all such food is nutritious, and it has been noted repeatedly that the most inexpensive food is usually of the lowest quality. Entire populations subside on the low end of the retail economy, but this hardly represents our aspirations for children. The only systemic safeguard offered in the Podgurksy model is the publication of poor student achievement scores to help parents identify low performing classrooms. The argument essentially ignores that school districts and potential teachers could find the price/value ratio of poorly conceived programs attractive enough to overlook the deficiencies.

Ultimately, the models here are speculative, but the questions are clearly vital: how do we attract quality candidates to teaching? What do those people need to learn and do in order to fulfill their potential? What can states do and what can states not do to ensure that potential is fulfilled? Can we maintain entrance requirements to teaching without dissuading too many excellent people from the profession? As the editors note on page 281, there is not sufficient evidence to endorse any of these models to answer these questions. However, they rightfully conclude that any path we take should attract qualified candidates, should provide potential teachers with the skills and knowledge they need, and should be based upon qualifications supported by our best research. The current system cannot claim these features and is in need of a shake up.


Cohen, D.K. (1995). What is the system in systemic reform? Educational Researcher, 24(9), 11-17.

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: the imperative for educational reform.

Washington , D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Commission for Teaching and

America 's Future. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America 's future. New York : NCTAF.

National Education Association of the

United States . (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education.A report of the Commission on the reorganization of secondary education. Washington , D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 2, 2005, p. 325-329
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11392, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:35:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Daniel Katz
    Seton Hall University
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL S. KATZ is assistant professor of educational studies and program director of secondary education at Seton Hall University. His recent work can be found in The Teaching Career, edited by John I. Goodlad and Timothy J. McMannon and in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Teacher Education. Current projects include an investigation of the impact of a Professional Development School on teacher practice.
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