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Published in Print: October 29, 2003, as States Claim Teachers Are 'Qualified'

States Claim Teachers Are 'Qualified'

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Thirty-three states report that at least four out of five classes in the core subjects have teachers who are "highly qualified." What's more, almost as many states—28—say the picture is about the same in their high-poverty schools.

States had to submit the figures to the U.S. Department of Education by September, as part of their consolidated applications for federal aid under the No Child Left Behind Act.

But with state officials admitting to guesswork, observers regard the statistics as a first stab at a data-gathering task many states were ill-equipped to undertake. Eleven states did not provide the required numbers at all.

See Also...

See the accompanying table, "Tracking Teacher Quality."

"We are very, very cautious about the data provided," said Jennifer Azordegan, who has been tracking the numbers for the Education Commission of the States, a bipartisan policy group in Denver.

The federal Education Department released reports from each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico on teacher qualifications and other matters for the first time last week, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests by Education Week and other news organizations.

The federal law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires states to put a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom in a core subject by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Some experts particularly questioned figures from more than half the states showing that their high-poverty schools face no greater challenge than the rest of their schools in finding highly qualified teachers. Just eight states showed a spread of more than 5 percentage points between the percent of highly qualified teachers statewide and in high-poverty schools.

The same number of states reported slightly higher numbers of such teachers in the schools that ranked in the top 25 percent for family poverty.

Noting that many studies have found high-poverty and high-minority schools often have less qualified teachers than their wealthier counterparts, one observer called the numbers "quite surprising."

"States have this one opportunity to honestly acknowledge where the problems are and build momentum for tackling them," said Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that works to improve the achievement of disadvantaged students. "If [states] don't seem to have a problem, it's going to be hard to get buy-in" for changes.

The Education Trust has sharply criticized federal education officials for, in the trust's view, shortchanging the teacher-quality provisions of the law.

Different Starting Points

Under the No Child Left Behind legislation, every elementary classroom teacher and secondary school teacher of core subjects—English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, social studies, and the arts—must be highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Newly hired teachers in schools that receive federal Title I money for disadvantaged students had to meet the criteria starting in 2002-03.

In general, a teacher, to be deemed highly qualified, must hold a bachelor's degree, be fully certified by a state, and have demonstrated knowledge of the subjects taught. But it's up to each state to devise the specific criteria it will use to determine whether an individual has met the federal mandate. Many states still are drawing up those criteria, a task that complicated counting heads.

Even so, states reported widely varied starting points. At the low end, Alaska reported that only 16 percent of classes have highly qualified teachers, compared with 98.6 percent in Wisconsin. With its many rural schools in which secondary teachers handle more than one subject, Alaska faces the daunting task of getting those teachers to pass a test or accumulate the equivalent of a college major in each of those subjects.

Other states said their positive statistics were absolutely warranted. Connecticut reported that more than 96 percent of its classes overall and 95 percent of its classes in high-poverty schools were taught last year by teachers who met the federal criteria. The state has been working on teacher quality for almost 20 years.

"We did experience some spot shortages in the last five to seven years," said Thomas W. Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut education department. The state responded with a number of measures, including an alternative route into teaching that includes night and weekend classes without lowering standards, he said.

Other states have struggled to tally accurate figures, in part because they have yet to decide how they will assess subject-matter competence, particularly for veteran educators. Under the law, veteran instructors also can meet the requirements via a "high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation," or HOUSSE, the specifics of which are up to each state.

Plenty of Guesswork

In addition, states collect data on teachers with varying degrees of sophistication and in ways that often don't match the federal requirements, resulting in plenty of guesswork.

Officials in Kansas, for example, know how many teachers are fully certified under state law for the subjects they teach, but the officials also know that middle school teachers in the core subjects who have degrees in elementary education do not meet the federal criteria.

The state's veteran teachers soon will have a chance to show their competence under a point system that Kansas has developed. But right now, many of those teachers do not meet the standard, lowering the total proportion of highly qualified teachers in the state to an estimated 80 percent. In high- poverty schools, that figure is also 80 percent.

Utah, meanwhile, counted veteran teachers who had not yet demonstrated subject-matter competence as "highly qualified," for a statewide total of almost 96 percent. But officials there noted that the figure for teachers who were "fully" highly qualified last year was less than 35 percent.

California posted some of the nation's most alarming statistics, with only 48 percent of classes statewide and 35 percent of classes in high-poverty schools taught by "highly qualified" educators.

"We worked really hard to come up with credible numbers," said Rebecca Parker, an education-program consultant who helped develop the percentages for the California education department. "On multiple dimensions, [our] data-collection system is not ideal for this task, but at every turn, we chose the most conservative approach to the data."

Looking at those numbers, she added, districts and teachers are "so disheartened." But with California's HOUSSE soon to go out in draft form, next year's numbers should see a significant jump, she said.

Ken Futernick, an education professor at California State University-Sacramento, who has crafted an independent index of teacher quality for the state, said the numbers are "in the ballpark."

"I think they're trying to do the best they could without very good data," he added.

When it came to reporting the proportion of teachers receiving "high quality" professional development, also required by the federal law, California and many other states drew more of a blank.

"We have no data on that at a statewide level," lamented Ms. Parker. "It's frustrating to want this and not have the data to be able to answer it very accurately."

Tremendous Variation

The data from the states on high-quality professional development varied tremendously, ranging from a low of 12 percent in North Dakota to 100 percent in five states: Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Sixteen states did not provide those numbers at all.

Maryland apparently was the only state to survey a sample of its teachers to get at the question. It estimated that about a third of teachers received high-quality professional development last year.

Experts worry that without better data, the federal law won't have much effect on teacher shortages or inequities. State and local officials will also have to make data a priority.

"This is not a problem that one bureaucrat with new software can solve," said Andrew J. Wayne, a researcher with SRI International's Arlington, Va., office, who has studied such issues. "Leadership is going to be needed to bridge organizational boundaries, to get all the pieces to come together."

A spokeswoman for the federal Education Department said no state has suffered a loss of funding under the law because it failed to provide meaningful data, but 32 jurisdictions have received their money with conditions related to developing adequate data systems for teacher quality.

Vol. 23, Issue 9, Pages 1,16

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Correction: 
This story gave the wrong number of states reporting that 80 percent or more of their classes were taught by such teachers in the past school year. The correct number is 31.

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