As American schools reopen, a 15-year effort to "professionalize" the job of teacher is running up against a strong counterforce the urgent need to fill classroom vacancies.
Students and their parents have long understood that the big question of a new school year is: Who is your teacher? A good teacher can help a struggling student get back on track. A few bad ones can set kids so far back that they never catch up.
Yet, despite the acknowledged importance of their role, America's teachers have not found it easy win salary upgrades or to earn professional respect akin to doctors or lawyers.
They have made gains. Salaries have been rising and many states have raised standards for being considered "qualified" to stand at the blackboard. Now, in what could be a further step toward professional standing, a new federal law requires a well-qualified teacher in every classroom by the fall of 2005.
The catch: These moves to bolster teaching come against the backdrop of tight budgets and high teacher turnover in many places. Pressures to get any adult at the front of an empty classroom could undermine the attractiveness of the profession to newcomers and veterans alike.
Since the mid-1980s, reformers within the profession have sought to set higher standards for entry and advancement, much as was done for medicine in the last century. Respect and rewards for the profession would follow, they said.
At same time, state officials began pursuing alternative routes to teaching, both to meet shortages and to provide easier access into the profession for top college graduates or career switchers. What counted in a classroom was not credentials, but knowing subject matter and being able to interest children in learning it, supporters said. Their programs often included extensive mentoring and on-the-job supervision.
The new federal law goes further, requiring that even veteran teachers demonstrate "solid content knowledge of the subjects they teach," either by passing a proficiency test or by having an undergraduate major in the subject they teach.
This year, new hires in schools accepting federal money for low-income students must meet this standard. It's a sharp departure from a tradition that the question of who teaches in a classroom is a local matter.
While federal dollars cover less than 8 percent of the cost of educating a child in a public school, the No Child Left Behind Act gives the Department of Education the right to leverage those billions to force states to get serious about teacher quality.
"The potential big losers are the ed schools, because they have had a monopoly on certification," says education historian Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In June, a report by the Department of Education blasting the quality of teacher education riled many teacher educators. "This department is, in the face of all the evidence, turning its back on colleges of education and basically espousing almost any other approach to bringing people into teaching," says Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
But a clash last week over California's new draft standards shows how difficult the use of federal leverage can be. To meet the federal requirements, California proposed defining "highly qualified" teachers as including interns with emergency permits. When asked to evaluate this plan, the US Department of Education said it wouldn't meet the terms of the law. That could cost the state $5.4 billion in federal dollars.
"California was trying to define as 'highly qualified' anybody who can breathe," says Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust.
But state officials say the new law will disrupt its pipeline of new teachers. "Half of the people on their way to full certification will be knocked out," says Linda Bond of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Last week, New York declared victory in its effort to end a teacher shortage, after raising starting salaries to $39,000, from $31,900. Nearly 1 in 3 new teachers in the state come from alternative certification programs that require a month of training.
Cottage industries are already cropping up to help states meet the terms of the new law. With federal funding, the Education Leaders Council in Washington is developing a system of teacher accreditation based on online testing. "I think the states will embrace it. They ... will be looking outside the box" for qualified teachers, says Billie Orr, ELC president. Six states have already expressed an interest, she says.
Other initiatives encouraged by the new law include performance pay for teachers, based on their ability to raise levels of student achievement.
"It's shattering a decades-long protocol of rewarding teachers for the courses they have taken and the time they have put in the classroom," says Lewis Solomon, director of the Teacher Advancement Program for the Milken Family Foundation.
But in the end, the key to any reform is persuading quality teachers to stay in the classroom. A new report by the National Commission of Teaching and America's Future notes that almost half of teachers leave after five years, and that any new approach to teacher quality has to address why. "What some of these reformers must remember is that the way teachers are voting their disapproval is leaving the field," says Gayle Fallon, head of the Houston chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.