Teacher Liberation
A WSJ Editorial

President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act calls for bringing all children to academic proficiency by 2014. But a no less daunting requirement of the law is that every classroom have a "highly qualified" teacher by 2006.

The latter is the impetus behind a new study by the Teaching Commission, a 19-member panel of business and education leaders set up last year to improve the public teaching corps. Their report, "Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action," makes a persuasive case for linking teacher pay to student performance and overhauling teacher certification.

These aren't new ideas, but it's progress when members of the establishment start stumping for reform. The Teaching Commission includes former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner, Clinton Education Secretary Richard Riley, as well as Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers, a union historically allergic to any and all accountability.

Retirements and rising student enrollments mean that U.S. schools will need some two million new teachers over the next decade, says the report. But the best college students are less likely to major in "education," which is too often a requirement to teach. The best education majors are in turn less likely to go into teaching. And the best teachers are most likely to leave the profession within four years.

Merit pay would be a big step toward reversing this trend. Currently, good teachers make no more money than bad ones. This one-size-fits-all compensation model, which is based on seniority and degrees rather than performance, also prevents districts from paying teachers more to work in hard-to-staff schools or to teach high-demand subjects such as math and science. The authors point out that market incentives work in nearly every profession -- except teaching.

Unions flourish in any monopoly, and they are the biggest obstacle to change. No sooner had "Teaching at Risk" been released than Ms. Feldman complained that it gave too much weight to basing pay on student achievement. Tom Blanford of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, refused even to consider merit pay.

Another solution, also opposed by unions, is more open teacher certification. Numerous studies have found no clear link between how well students perform and whether or not they are taught by a "certified" teacher. But today nearly all school districts require the completion of an accredited teacher education program -- which typically involves costly and lengthy (often 18-month) courses on teaching. This rules out retired CEOs or anyone else with expertise outside of the "education" field who'd like to teach.

Yet, says the report, under the current rules 38% of urban secondary-school students are taught "by teachers who lack either a college major or certification in the subject that they teach." And 56% of all public high school students learn physical science from an "out-of-field" teacher.

Contrast this with how universities operate. There is a long tradition of professional journalists, authors, poets and others teaching college writing. But today Langston Hughes would be banned from instructing a Harlem high school English class until he obtained the proper New York licensing.

Streamlining the process to qualify to teach, and reducing the emphasis on pedagogy for its own sake, would make teaching more attractive. The commission suggests, among other things, giving new teachers "intensive on-the-job mentoring," including a month spent observing someone more experienced. "Teaching at Risk" can be discouraging about the magnitude of the teacher problem, but there is hope. In the past decade, Dallas, New York, Denver and other cities have tried some form of merit pay. Since 1985, 200,000 people have also become teachers through alternative certification programs.

The largest problem is that unions and the politicians who carry their water have successfully kept these reforms from taking hold on anything but the most modest scale. But if the types of improvements imagined in No Child Left Behind are ever to become reality, we'll have to think bigger. Much bigger.


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