An effective teacher can alter a student's achievement by as much as 50 percentage points.

An effective teacher can alter a student's achievement by as much as 50 percentage points.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are required to make sure every teacher is “highly qualified,” which—according to the law—means teachers must be certified in the subject areas they teach. But amid a growing consensus that “highly qualified” doesn’t necessarily mean “highly effective,” a movement is under way to reshape how the nation views successful teaching.

The effort is particularly relevant as learning in today’s schools undergoes a 21st-century transformation, some observers say—and they say true reform won’t occur until education leaders redefine what “highly qualified” teaching means.

In the typical instructional model of the past, the teacher was a “sage on the stage,” well versed in facts within a specific subject area and able to teach from a textbook. But now, 21st-century education demands a different kind of teacher, many stakeholders say—more of a mentor than a sage, and someone who can facilitate both individualized and collaborative learning.

According to some education experts, teachers are not adequately prepared for what schools need today, are not supported in their school environment, and are not assessed for their 21st-century skills and performance.

In a policy brief titled “Call for Action: Transforming Teaching and Learning to Prepare High School Students for College and Careers,” Mariana Haynes, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE), writes that standards-based reform will continue to fall short in preparing graduates for college and careers without “sustained investments in building the teaching profession and a greater focus on redesigning schools to support teacher and student learning.”

According to Haynes’ research, many studies confirm that the interaction between a student and teacher is the primary determinant of what students learn in school, with school leadership following as a close second.

The report also says that having an effective teacher versus a less effective teacher for three consecutive years can alter a student’s achievement by as much as 50 percentage points—an impact sufficient to distinguish between students who struggle to graduate and those who succeed in entering college or the workplace.

“Unfortunately,” writes Haynes, “… the chance that a student—let alone one who is disadvantaged—will be placed with a highly effective teacher for one year is about 15 percent; the likelihood of having an excellent teacher five years in a row is 1 in 17,000.”

Better teacher preparation is key

One way to help produce effective teachers is by starting early with teacher preparation programs and colleges.

According to Haynes, current measures of teaching “quality” under NCLB—based largely on whether teachers are subject-matter certified—do not differentiate between how well teachers impart learning and how well they affect student achievement.

For Marc Liebman, superintendent of Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., there can be a large gap between certification and performance. Though certification is based on credentials, skills tests, and college courses, none of these areas ensure that a teacher will be, or is, effective in helping students achieve classroom success.

“There are no requirements to ensure that teachers know how to work with students, understand social development, can teach them to be critical thinkers, or how to motivate them,” said Liebman. “Certifications also don’t test if a teacher knows how to effectively work with parents to help their children, is dedicated to student success, or knows learning theory and/or differentiated instruction to work with students of different ability levels, different cultures, [or who] speak other languages.”

“Collaboration and teamwork are not emphasized in the pre-service programs, so new teachers do not have the skills to, or even the expectation that they will, work in a collaborative environment,” said Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), and Hanna Doerr, program manager at NCTAF, in a statement to eSchool News.

Liebman said teacher colleges and programs simply don’t have the time to prepare teachers adequately. Instead, teachers tend to learn more about teaching students to think critically, differentiating instruction, and using alternative instructional strategies on the job.

“I think that the on-the-job support programs that districts provide are far more critical to the long-term development of teachers than the year they spend in college classes and student teaching,” said Liebman.

School support also is needed

Whether colleges or programs adequately prepare teachers to be 21st-century classroom mentors or not, experts agree that teachers cannot be effective without support: from their peers and administration, from state standards, by receiving sustained professional development, and by having classroom resources.