The NCLBification of Higher Education

By Emery Petchauer

One of the most significant yet subtle ways that the No Child Left Behind Act has affected higher education is by shaping the requirements for students intending to become teachers. In this way, although NCLB is a federal act directed at K-12 education, its effects have traveled up the educational ladder into higher education.

Here is how it works:

In order for teacher education programs to be accredited by states or bodies such as National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, programs must graduate Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT), which is a central aspect of NCLB. Generally, being highly qualified means completing an accredited teacher education program and passing certification tests (e.g. Praxis I, Praxis II in most states) — all in the discipline one plans to teach. While these are not new ideas, what is new is requiring students to pass the first part of a certification exam (again, often Praxis I) before allowing them to declare education as a major or take upper division classes. Making students pass the first part of a certification exam helps ensure that graduates will be highly qualified; it is a gatekeeper that disallows students from matriculating through their programs and getting to senior year with little chance of graduating as highly qualified. To state this process more simply, in many states such as Pennsylvania, students must now test into teacher education programs.

These policies and implications do not have significant effects on large universities with significant numbers of students planning to become teachers. In fact, it is likely that the policies go undetected by most faculty members. Students who cannot pass the tests for a variety of reasons (e.g., deficient high school educations, have not mastered dominant culture standardized testing norms) often change majors or transfer to institutions that can offer them more support to pass exams. At many large institutions, enough students are able to pass the exams on their own, so programs maintain a critical mass of students graduating as HQT to support their accreditation.

However, the policies and implications have significant effects on smaller institutions, particularly those that serve students who have been underserved by their secondary schools and have been on the lower end of the high school achievement (or opportunity) gap. In essence, these students have a short amount of time (about three semesters) to develop the dominant culture norms and skills of standardized tests and fill any gaps in reading, writing or math so that they can pass the entrance exam, declare their majors and take upper level classes. As one can imagine, this situation can create incredible amounts of stress for students, which further inhibits optimum performance.

Overall, this system — or what I call the NLCBification of higher education — creates more barriers for working class and ethnic minority students to enter the teaching profession.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his current

research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences, and lives.

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