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Published in Print: October 29, 2003, as City Schools Report Progress On Hiring Certified Teachers

City Schools Report Progress On Hiring Certified Teachers

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With the ticking clock of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in their ears, urban school leaders are hiring thousands of fully certified teachers. New hiring tactics and a weak economy have allowed big-city districts to decrease their reliance on uncertified educators.

While the trend reflects progress, questions remain about whether many of the new teachers are well enough prepared, and which of their more experienced counterparts measure up to strict new federal requirements. Skeptics also doubt that nabbing more certified teachers, in and of itself, will improve the troublingly high rate at which urban teachers leave their jobs.

For now, though, districts are finding much to celebrate as they try to comply with a portion of the No Child Left Behind law that requires schools to have "highly qualified" educators teaching core academic subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year. In general, highly qualified means that teachers possess full state certification and have demonstrated competence in the subjects they teach.

In Los Angeles, fewer than 6 percent of this fall's newly hired teachers have had licensure requirements waived or have not yet reached "intern" status, compared with 59 percent in 2001. Two-thirds of the district's newly hired teachers hold state credentials, compared with one- third two years ago.

"We're going to be much closer to meeting No Child Left Behind in a couple of years with this kind of movement," said Deborah Hirsh, a former U.S. Navy recruiting expert who is now the chief human- resources officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District. The pattern echoes in other districts.

Only 4 percent of Philadelphia's new teachers are working with emergency permits this year, compared with 10 percent to 12 percent last year. New York City hired 9,000 new teachers this year, and every one is state-certified.

While a state license doesn't necessarily equal "highly qualified" under federal law, big-city districts, which often fall short of finding enough certified teachers, welcome the increase.

"The fact that they were all certified is a record for us," said New York City schools spokeswoman Marge Feinberg.

Even as the picture improves for newly hired teachers, however, districts still have a sobering task ahead in making sure their existing teacher workforces have the qualifications to pass federal muster. Administrators also face the daunting and persistent challenge of finding enough credentialed teachers in shortage areas such as science, mathematics, bilingual education, and special education.

Qualified Enough?

Large proportions of the new teachers in some urban districts have little experience or came through alternative-certification programs, which streamline entry into the profession for midcareer job-switchers and others interested in teaching.

As the proportion of new Los Angeles teachers holding emergency certification has gone down, the proportion who are interns— those who have completed most requirements for licensure except the exam itself—has more than quadrupled, from 6 percent two years ago to 27 percent this year.

In Philadelphia, 110 of the 784 new teachers in place on the first day of school came through the Teach For America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools. In Dallas, nearly half of this year's 850 new hires came through the district's own alternative-certification program.

"It's been very challenging to comply with that [highly qualified teacher] provision," said Mary H. Roberts, who oversees teacher hiring as Dallas' deputy superintendent of employee and safety services. "The alternative-certification programs have been a saving grace for us."

Some are skeptical about teachers from such programs, however.

B.J. Bryant, the executive director of the American Association for Employment in Education, a Columbus, Ohio-based research group, said: "We are very concerned that while there may be warm bodies to fill classrooms, will they really be highly qualified?"

They are, according to the federal government. The No Child Left Behind Act specifies that those who come to teaching through alternative routes receive extensive training and guidance, so federal officials are confident that those recruits are on a par with more traditionally prepared educators, said Carolyn Snowbarger, the special assistant for teacher quality for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

More aggressive hiring and computer databases have played vital roles in ushering more certified teachers into urban classrooms this year.

Los Angeles' application process, said Ms. Hirsh, used to produce 35,000 packets "stacked all over the office," hindering the district's ability to identify which were the best-qualified and most-needed candidates. Now, all candidates apply online, allowing administrators to identify quickly the most promising candidates and arrange interviews for them with principals.

The district used that streamlined process to offer 1,000 early contracts instead of waiting until the middle or end of summer, a move that can often cost a district top-notch candidates.

Chicago is using a new database not only for hiring, but also for determining which teachers fall short of the federal law's requirements. Teachers check and correct the qualifications the district has listed for them in the computer system. Principals check the information as well.

Using that database, Chicago now knows which teachers are certified and which are "highly qualified" under the law, said Joi Mecks, the district's chief spokeswoman. A recent audit showed 87 percent met that definition. Of the 13 percent who didn't, most lacked appropriate subject- matter credentials, she said.

Chicago uses that information to notify teachers of what they must do to comply with the law, and also to notify parents—as required by the same law—if their children have been taught for a month or more by a teacher not deemed highly qualified, said Ms. Mecks.

More typical, though, are states and districts whose data-gathering systems still fall short of being able to deliver what the federal law requires.

Last month, states submitted to the federal Education Department reports that were to have included data showing what percentages of their classes were taught by less-than-highly-qualified teachers, and what percentages of those teachers were concentrated in high-poverty schools. More than a few states could not supply that information, said Celia H. Sims, a special assistant in the department's office of elementary and secondary education who coordinates the review of the states' plans.

Federal money paid to those states this month came with the condition that the data be produced, Ms. Sims said. States that still have not supplied the information by Nov. 17 will have to submit plans detailing when and how it will be produced, she said.

Needing Direction

States and districts, for their part, often report that they lack enough guidance to supply the required information, especially on what portion of the teachers already in the classroom falls short of the "highly qualified" definition. The law says states may apply a "high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation," or HOUSSE, to determine if such veterans comply with the law.

In response to states' cries for more help in figuring out how to design such evaluations, the Education Department has put together assistance groups, and it has already scheduled visits by those groups to more than half the states, Ms. Snowbarger said.

Some urban officials are concerned, however, that guidance has been so long in coming that they might be left with insufficient time to bring their teacher corps up to snuff.

"It's a little disconcerting," said Ms. Roberts of Dallas, which employs 104,000 teachers. "Our state has told us we'll be getting it shortly. But we are so large, it's going to be a monumental task."

While the law holds potentially serious consequences for schools that fail to make adequate yearly academic progress, the Education Department is taking a less aggressive approach to states that do not live up to their annual targets for boosting their ranks of highly qualified teachers. Districts are required by the law to draft such plans as well.

States' progress in that area will be monitored, federal officials said, but the focus will be less on consequences for failure to improve than on how the department can help states meet their goals.

"While the ultimate sanction is withholding federal aid, it's premature to discuss sanctions of that sort," the department said in a statement issued in response to a question from Education Week. The focus, it said, will be on helping states reach their goals.

As districts concentrate on enhancing their teacher corps, some wonder whether their success this year will be short-lived.

Ms. Bryant, of the American Association for Employment in Education, said many districts fared better this year because cutbacks left them with fewer hires to make. In addition, the economy lured fewer teachers away from teaching, prompted some to delay retirement, and delivered others to the candidate pool because they had been laid off, she noted.

"When the economy turns around, shortages will materialize again," she predicted.

Retention an Issue

Some advocates fear that in concentrating on putting qualified teachers in classrooms, the No Child Left Behind Act overlooks a vexing problem: keeping them once they get there.

"My biggest concern is that the law is supply- focused, as if we could solve the problem by finding more teachers from whatever source," said Tom Carroll, the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a Washington-based group that promotes improvement in teacher quality.

"We need to focus on the conditions that are driving teachers out, like lack of support, lack of a voice in instructional decisions and planning," he said. "Until we deal with the retention issue, we can prepare the best teachers possible, ... but if we can't keep them, we haven't accomplished our goal."

Ms. Snowbarger said that teachers often leave because they are not properly prepared to do their jobs. Requiring them to be highly qualified, the aide to Secretary Paige said, will ensure they are "comfortable with their subject matter and know how to deliver effective instruction."

With that shift, she said, the Education Department is confident that the teacher-retention picture will improve.

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 23, Issue 9, Pages 1,17

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