The debate over education legislation pending in Congress should be as much about teacher quality as it is about student achievement. Too many teachers are being expected to teach what they don't know.
How can a teacher who last studied math or science in high school be expected to teach algebra, geometry, biology or chemistry? Why is a teacher who is unsure about phonics asked to teach reading? Such assignments occur all too often, the result of a teacher shortage that hits high-poverty schools hardest.
Washington can't eliminate uneven teacher quality because public education is largely a local matter. However, Congress spends billions to aid impoverished schools, and more of those funds should be directed toward improving the quality of teaching.
An amendment to federal education legislation pending in the Senate and sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) would provide billions of dollars for professional development and mentors to strengthen teachers.
Nearly 200,000 teachers who neither majored nor minored in their area of instruction would get specialized training in that subject. About 50,000 newly hired and uncertified teachers would learn methods of instruction and child development skills, and another 125,000 new hires would get mentors--experienced teachers with proven skills who can assist their inexperienced colleagues on instruction and classroom management skills. Nearly 300,000 teachers would get other extra help, for instance in subject areas where their school's test scores showed weakness.
The measure would give priority to teachers who work in high-poverty schools. Those schools would have four years to put certified and academically competent teachers in every classroom. Schools that failed to do so would lose some federal funds. This amendment, which passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support, should become law even though it would increase funding beyond the amount the president wants to spend on education. Unlike some past federal education initiatives, this measure demands results.
Teachers are blamed when students fail, but they don't always get the training and other help they need to succeed. Washington can help by providing more funds--with strings attached.