For nearly five decades, improving the quality of public education has been a focus of local, state, and federal educational priorities. As evidence of flat or declining student achievement mounted and national reports such as A Nation at Risk highlighted the perceived deficiencies of our United States public education system, more and more questions began to be raised about the quality of public schools (Green, 2001; Senge et al., 2000). In response to these concerns, myriad diverse educational initiatives were developed to address particular perceived needs. For example, during the 1950s and 1960s educators responded to calls for improvement with such highly visible programs as "hands-on" versus textbook-driven science programs, increased emphasis on mathematics including the introduction of "new math," and an array of compensatory education programs geared toward underachieving students (Beyer & Johnson, 2005; Kilpatrick, 1997; Unger, 2001). From the 1970s through the 1990s, multiple reform efforts surged onto the national education agenda including criterion referenced and back-to-basics curricula, differentiated instruction, expanded faculty collaboration in decision making, state student assessment programs including learning standards and high stakes testing, and much more (Hunt, 2005; Danielson & McGreal, 2000; Fullen, 1993). While several initiatives were relatively short lived, others continued to evolve. One of the most prominent examples of this evolutionary process was the 2001 reauthorization of the original Elementary and secondary Education Act of 1965, re-titled No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
NCLB marks an important turning point in public education governance. Rather than merely recognizing the responsibility and authority for school improvement at the local school board and state levels as had been tradition, federal officials asserted themselves squarely in the educational improvement process by linking federal funding to increased student achievement. By expecting that student assessment measures be aligned with individual state-identified content area standards and tied to mandated student performance levels with graduated penalties for failure to meet them, the federal government signaled a more direct role in educational improvement efforts (Beyer & Johnson, 2005).
In addition to the student achievement provisions, an equally important centerpiece of NCLB is its focus on teacher qualifications. Since current educational researchers have confirmed a link between effective teachers and increased student achievement (Tucker & Stronge, 2005; Stronge, 2002; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Fullen, 2001; Danielson & McGreal, 2000), one of the most important NCLB requirements may ultimately be mandating that school districts employ "highly qualified" teachers: those who earn bachelor's degrees, are fully certified, and prove subject area competence (Mosley, 2006; Beyer & Johnson, 2005). If, as recent research has indicated, teacher quality truly accounts for a significant portion of the difference between high and low achieving students, the hiring and retention of the most effective teachers and the dismissal of poor performers may be two of the most crucial decisions school administrators and boards of education make (Stronge, 2002).
Yet, how much autonomy do school administrators and boards of education have to make these important decisions? The reality is that, throughout the United States, they often face substantial obstacles to implement effective teacher evaluation and dismissal, particularly with faculty members who are perceived as mediocre or below average performers. These obstacles include state teacher tenure laws, collective bargaining agreements, and teacher unions that typically resist most attempts to dismiss teachers. In fact, school administrators who are primarily responsible for leading the school-level improvement process identify teacher unions and state tenure laws as significant impediments to bringing about productive change (Kersten & Israel, 2005). …