One would assume a hard-working and well-meaning, credentialed teacher has what it takes to succeed, but as far as Uncle Sam is concerned, knowing what to teach in terms of the subject matter is equally important, if not more so.
The rationale for this "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 requirement notes that we have tens of thousands of new and experienced "out-of-field" teachers in the United States today who do not have formal preparation or demonstrated competency in the academic topics they're teaching.
A 3-year-old survey on out-of-field teachers by the U.S. Department of Education shows that nearly one out of five English and foreign language teachers in U.S. middle schools did not major in English or the foreign languages they are teaching. Even worse is the fact that nearly one out of four middle school mathematics teachers -- 23 percent -- did not major in math. And, 17 percent of middle school science teachers were not science majors.
There are fewer out-of-field teachers in our high schools, but the problem of academic competency is of concern at that level as well. In fact, many secondary teachers in California are teaching subjects via provisions that allow districts to rely on the judgment of their school principal.
Such casual certification at the local school district level is now coming to a screeching stop as part of NCLB's goal to give every student a quality education while providing accountability and a choice for parents.
The law stipulates that all teachers in schools receiving federal funding who teach English, reading, language arts, mathematics, science, history, civics and government, economics, the arts and foreign languages must either meet specific "highly qualified" teacher criteria at the time they are hired or attain that status in less than two years from now.
The larger numbers of out-of-field teachers in our middle schools, particularly in math and science, is especially distressing because it is at this level where these topics, in particular, need to be expertly taught in order to stimulate preteens to begin thinking about careers in those fields. Students need to have a good foundation in math and science before they enter high school so they can take the level of courses necessary to prepare to major in those subjects at two- or four-year colleges.
The same holds true in other topics. The middle school years are critical to developing strong foundations and interest in English, other language arts and social studies. In addition to being able to read and compute, our young people need to know how to write a basic sentence, where Europe and China are on a map, and how many states are in the union long before they move up into their local high schools.
Being highly qualified means new elementary school teachers must demonstrate subject-matter competency on a required state test. New middle or secondary teachers have two avenues to establish competency: (1) complete a major in the core academic topic they will be teaching or (2) pass a rigorous state academic subject test.
For experienced teachers, subject-matter competency can be demonstrated via a "high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation" that takes into account such objective factors as college course work, advanced credentials, professional development, involvement in content and curriculum-related activities, the achievement levels of their students and years of experience.
New teachers in federal Title I programs must be highly qualified when they are hired; other new teachers and all current teachers must be qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year. So far, fewer than one-third of California's teachers have qualified.
These are minimal standards for what makes a highly competent teacher. There are numerous ways teachers can excel well beyond those benchmarks voluntarily, not the least of which is to earn the National Board Certified Teacher designation from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
National Board Certification attests that a teacher has been judged by his or her peers as one who has become an accomplished teacher, makes sound professional judgments about student learning and acts effectively on those judgments. Some 25,000 teachers throughout the nation, including 189 in San Diego County, have become certified since this program began 1993.
Certification is an extensive process of performance-based assessments that include detailed teaching portfolios, student work samples, videotapes and thorough analyses of the candidates' classroom teaching and student learning. Teachers also complete a series of written exercises that probe the depth of their subject-matter knowledge, as well as their understanding of how to teach those subjects.
Voluntary or otherwise, any initiative that helps our teachers become "highly qualified" and better at what they do in their classrooms is the best way we can truly ensure that no child is left behind.
In realty, it's the only way.
Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.