Constructions of the highly qualified teacher: the impact of a federal policy on high school math teachers

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Blue, Deborah Ann

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The ‘highly qualified’ teacher requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) established minimum standards for new entrants to the teaching profession, and aims to reduce the incidence of out-of-field teaching. This is consistent with educational leaders’ efforts to improve teacher quality, and ultimately, to transform all schools into socially just and academically rich organizations that accomplish the goals of NCLB. While the policy goal is to provide better teachers, it has the potential to exacerbate shortages in the core subject areas in which knowledgeable teachers are often in short supply, among them, secondary math. The study investigated educator perceptions of the ‘highly qualified’ teacher requirement of NCLB, and its impact on the actual experience/practice of urban high school math teachers. Their responses provided insight into the relationship between the federal policy as it was intended, and its actual implementation in hard-to-staff urban high school math classrooms, where there is intense pressure for increased student achievement. Respondents reported that they and their urban high school teaching colleagues were all ‘highly qualified’ in math. Administrators’ authority to designate those enrolled in alternative certification programs, though inexperienced, as ‘highly qualified’ was perceived as indispensable to compliance with the policy. Teachers described the ‘highly qualified teacher’ designation more as political rhetoric rather than a recognition of professional excellence, even as it has become part of their working vocabulary. Accountability pressures, particularly state test preparation, drove teachers’ efforts to improve student learning; their descriptions of their teaching practices concentrated primarily on providing more opportunities for students to practice math problem solving, and less on instituting alternative instructional approaches.