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Actions Over Credentials: Moving from Highly Qualified to Measurably Effective

by Joshua Barnett & Audrey Amrein-Beardsley - August 18, 2011

For decades, policymakers have promulgated legislation that requires schools to hire effective teachers in all classrooms. Simultaneously, the education research community has attempted to define what effective teachers do in the classroom. A decade ago, No Child Left Behind provided a framework for defining effective teachers as “highly qualified,” which required schools to ensure all of their teachers fit the new standard. This standard, however, is no longer appropriate, as continued evidence indicates that the relationship between credentials and achievement is tenuous. Therefore, policymakers and researchers need to revise the term “highly qualified,” and, by utilizing the advances in educational accountability over the previous decade, replace it with a term grounded in practice and directly connected to achievement and effectiveness.


The age of accountability omnivorously enshrouding the education community in the 21st century has led policymakers and researchers to a highly charged debate over the quality of teachers in America. While this debate is not new, the fervor surrounding it is reaching a crescendo, and, in our opinion, is again at a pivotal point of transition. As such, an opportunity exists to find some middle ground, where those within the teaching corps are held accountable to an applied standard based on practice rather than preparation.

For decades, researchers have sought convergence on defining an effective teachers practices with little success (Goldhaber, 2002; Goldhaber & Anthony, 2004; Lanier & Little, 1986; Turner, 1975), yet district officials and policymakers were left to create policies ensuring all students were taught by qualified teachers (Allen, 2003; Delandshere & Petrosky, 1994; 1998; 2004; Wise, 2002). These policies culminated in major reformation under the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) that required the hiring and continued employment of highly qualified teachers. Based on the requirements of NCLB, highly qualified teachers must: 1) have a bachelor's degree, 2) have full state certification or licensure, and 3) prove that they know each subject they teach (U.S. Department of Education, 2002; 2003). Beyond these three criteria, teachers also must demonstrate their competence in each subject they teach by having a major, college credits equivalent to a major, passage of a state developed test or advanced certification from the state, or a graduate degree.

Without question, NCLB reformed the conversation about teacher effectiveness by creating clearly defined qualifications. Notwithstanding, the corresponding discussion around highly qualified has been left behind in itself and is in need of reconsideration. Recently, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has increasingly acknowledged this need for reform, calling NCLB a slow moving train wreck. Specifically with regard to teachers, NCLB focused much on the credentials a teacher brought into the classroom, not on his or her performance once there.

With the winnowing relevance of the term highly qualified, a new standard in educational accountability is needed. In our opinion, we are at yet another defining moment in educational accountability, but are now at risk, again, of oversimplifying what it means to be a good teacher. This time around, some accountability proponents are advocating that rather than using credentials-only, as in NCLB, students test scores should be the focus. To follow this pathway, educational leaders are moving from defining highly qualified within three reductionistic categories under NCLB to defining whether a teacher is effective based on a black box recalculation of growth between two (or more as available) standardized test scores.

In our opinion, the accountability pendulum between credentials-only and achievement-only presents an opportunity to advance the debate about teacher quality. Further, the next iteration of accountability will be well served by relying on multiple measures of effectiveness, rather than monolithic indicators which are, at best, limited and, at worst, grossly inaccurate.

From Highly Qualified to Measurably Effective

Even though there exists some discussion about the degree of impact, the educational community agrees that teachers do impact student achievement (Darling-Hammond, 2002). However, continued evidence indicates that the connection between the highly qualified designation of teachers based on NCLBs credentials-only and student achievement is tenuous (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007a; 2007b; Duncan, 2009; Gordon, Kane, & Staiger, 2006; Harris & Sass, 2007).

In light of these research findings and Secretary Duncans comments over the previous year, policymakers and researchers need to transition from examining the quality of educators based on their credentials and advance a definition based on actual practice; heretofore, moving from a definition of highly qualified based on credentials towards a definition of what it means to be measurably effective, a designation based on in-service action.

Determining Measurably Effective

The developing trend in educational measurement is to analyze teacher effects on student achievement via growth or value-added scores (Harris, 2009; McCaffrey, Koretz, Lockwood, & Hamilton, 2003). The evolution towards value-added, however, is not without discussion and, in our opinion, is not a well considered endpoint, particularly since even robust value-added proponents contend that more reliability and validity evidence is needed before consequential decisions can be made (Harris & Hill, 2009). Therefore, a continued discussion about comprehensive, multi-modal systems for teacher evaluation must be put forward.

What might such a multi-modal system include? First, a more holistic system to define the effectiveness of teachers can be better built on performance bands similar to student achievement scores whereas exact measurements are less necessary, compared to the current trend towards reducing teachers to a single value-added score, which is likely falsely specific. Those who score in the lowest sections, over multiple semesters or years, might be released or targeted for intervention. Those in the highest sections, over the same period of time, might be targeted for figurative or tangible rewards.

Second, the effectiveness of teachers might be used correlatively (Koretz, McCaffrey, & Hamilton, 2001) with administrators ratings of teacher effectiveness. These data might be considered before consequential decisions about teacher effectiveness are made. This stands in direct contrast to the current trend to use value-added scores in isolation, which also violates the fields professional standards (AERA, APA, NCME, 2000).

Third, a holistic system would include an observational protocol, which is often most telling of what teachers actually do in the classroom (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007b; Cunningham & Stone, 2005; Schacter & Thum, 2004; see also Stake, 1967). For example, the Teacher Advancement Program (TAPTM) observational tool is one such measure used for assessing instructional quality inside the classroom. Other observational protocols and instruments being used include the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) and the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). Beyond credential-only and achievement-only measures of teaching effectiveness, additional areas of consideration might include portfolios, hypothetical scenarios, work samples, or lesson plans (for more information, see Bullock & Hawk, 2001; Campbell, Melenyzer, Nettles, & Wyman, 2001; Darling-Hammond, 2006; Good et al., 2006; Rubenstein, 2007; Russell & Wineburg, 2007).

While all of these modes are methodologically limited in their own, unique ways, if the scores correlate with each other, researchers, administrators, teachers, and the public stand to move well beyond the anachronistic metric system we are currently using to define teachers as highly qualified, and towards a more holistic and in-field definition of measurably effective. In addition, increasing the number of available indicators used to determine measurably effective allows us to include more teachers in the evaluation and accountability process, beyond simply those who teach mathematics and language arts with pretest scores available, which currently applies to only one third of all teachers.


Myriad researchers have worked to advance the teaching profession towards higher quality, responding to the needs of local communities, states, the nation, and even the globe; however, the current landscape of accountability is another transition in this emerging process towards improvement, where actions in the field might be used to redefine effectiveness rather than by using credentials-only, as required under the current tenets of No Child Left Behind. However, the exact system of defining that effectiveness needs to be borne from a wide range of experimentation of portions or all of the aforementioned concepts (teacher value-added and school value-added in bands; administrator rankings/ratings; observational protocols; parental surveys; student surveys; etc.), which will allow the educational research community and local educators to develop a system that consistently and accurately measures effectiveness holistically.

However, to encourage such experimentation, federal and state definitions of highly qualified teachers, which are no longer reflective of the reality of the field, must be replaced with a new, more appropriate concept, albeit one that does not dismiss and reward teachers based on their ability to affect student achievement scores alone. While the debate over value-added and measurement acuity continues to find ground, the time is now for educators to join in defining how they will be held to the next quality standard. Throughout this essay a case has been made to transition to a new model, where impact and action are used as the standard and teachers are deemed measurably effective based on their influence on the whole child through a holistic system of accountability that includes quantitative and qualitative indicators beyond simple credentials or test scores.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 18, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16517, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 12:34:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Joshua Barnett
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    JOSHUA BARNETT is an assistant professor of education policy in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. His research interests include education reform, educational equity, and teacher quality. He has worked to improve teacher quality and student achievement in Arkansas, Arizona, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, as well as internationally in New Zealand. He earned his Ph.D. in public policy in 2007 from the University of Arkansas.
  • Audrey Amrein-Beardsley
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    AUDREY AMREIN-BEARDSLEY, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Audrey's research interests include educational policy, research methods, and more specifically, high-stakes tests and value-added measurements and systems. She is also the creator and host of a show titled Inside the Academy during which she interviews some of the top educational researchers in the academy (http://insidetheacademy.asu.edu
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