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'Highly Qualified' Discontent

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This article was originally published in Education Week.

The end of the school year marks a deadline for states to meet a federal requirement that most teachers be “highly qualified.” But the cutoff holds little threat these days. And even one-time proponents of the provision are conceding their disappointment in its reach and are fixing their sights on new ways to raise teacher quality.

Advocates vary in how they suggest the teacher-quality mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act has fallen short. On the whole, it hasn’t prompted states to set higher and more sensible requirements with their licensing systems, some say.

It hasn’t helped schools get rid of veteran teachers who haven’t mastered the content they teach, others contend, because states were allowed to set lax standards for teachers on the job when the law passed.

Even the requirement for new teachers to pass a subject-area test before stepping in front of a class has been compromised by cutoff scores that differ from state to state, critics maintain.

Finally, some argue, the law has hardly addressed the underlying difficulty of ensuring a labor pool deep or skilled enough to serve the most challenging schools. Without significant improvement there, administrators in some districts have been left with unpalatable choices.

“I had hoped [the law] would push states to ensure [teacher] quality to a greater degree than it ended up doing,” said Lynn Cornett, the vice president for policy issues at the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, which pushes for better schools south of the Mason-Dixon line. “For instance, early on, we thought it would drive more teachers to go back and get content courses.”

Instead, Ms. Cornett said, experienced teachers have largely met the “highly qualified” standard by taking a subject-matter exam with an unimpressive cutoff score for passing or by using the state’s own evaluation, which usually awards points for experience and sometimes for such activities as travel and service on committees.

Those evaluation plans—known as High Objective Uniform State Standards of Evaluation, or HOUSSE—created a giant loophole in the law, according to Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington research and advocacy group that promotes higher teacher quality. “The HOUSSE means the numbers turned in by the states have almost no meaning.”

Plans in Place

The states have been required for four years to tell the federal government what proportion of “core” classes in high- and low-poverty public schools are taught by highly qualified teachers. The standard for being deemed highly qualified requires teachers of math, science, social studies, fine arts, reading, and languages to hold a long-term license and demonstrate their knowledge of content by getting a college major, or by passing a test in the subject taught, or by some other means set by the state.

The law gave the states until the end of the 2005-06 school year to get all such teachers up to the standard or face the possible loss of federal aid.

Predicting that no state would meet the goal by then, however, federal officials in the fall of 2005 mandated a plan from each state outlining how it intended to get a highly qualified teacher to the head of each core class by the end of the following school year. ("States Given Extra Year on Teachers," Nov. 2, 2005.) As of last week, federal officials had approved all the plans except for those submitted by Hawaii and Puerto Rico, according to Rebecca Neale, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Figures on the proportions of classes taught by highly qualified teachers will be released “in the near future,” Ms. Neale said, making the release later than in any previous year.

Tricia Coulter, who heads the teacher-policy arm at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver group that provides information and advice to education policymakers, said the numbers she has seen showed the variation among states that is familiar from past years, with some states claiming close to 100 percent compliance.

In examining the states’ plans for closing the so-called teacher-quality gap, she found, too, that most did not seem up to the task. In general, Ms. Coulter said, the states are not targeting their resources to fix particular problems identified through data. Rather, their solutions are broad, such as enticing more people into teaching subjects for which candidates are in short supply.

Federal officials say they expect districts with less than 100 percent compliance to have a plan in place for reaching the goal. States will be expected to monitor those districts, and in turn, the states will be monitored by the federal government, Ms. Neale, the spokeswoman, said.

Pushing the Law

Largely disappointed with the outcomes of the “highly qualified” teacher provision of the No Child Left Behind law, policymakers and teacher-quality advocates are turning their attention to what else should be done.

From federal officials and members of Congress—Shift attention from merely “highly qualified” to “highly effective” by means of identifying such teachers and paying them for their performance and for teaching in the neediest schools.

From the National Education Association—Pay more to teachers who agree to work in high-poverty schools for five years.

From the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy organization—Require teachers to demonstrate student-learning gains to earn tenure after the first one to three years in the classroom; give significant incentives to teachers whose students learn the most to teach the most challenging students; devote the nearly $3 billion in federal Title II teacher-quality money to raising teacher quality in high-poverty schools.

From the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind—Remove teachers from high-poverty schools who rate in the bottom quartile of effectiveness as measured by student test scores, despite professional-development offerings, for seven consecutive years.

From several sources—Allocate Title II money to states that address problems with the recruitment, preparation, roles, and retention of teachers; improve alternative licensure; and encourage new pay plans.

There are signs that many of the districts that face the greatest challenges—mostly those in highly urban and rural areas—are making progress.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents large urban districts, said his group is completing a survey that shows improvement in the numbers from several years ago. A few districts are in the 95 percent compliance range, he said.

Urban Improvement

One of those districts is the 130,000-student San Diego system. Jeno Flores, the district’s deputy superintendent, said that despite its overall success, however, schools in poorer areas of the city are still considerably more likely to have classes taught by teachers who haven’t met the standard. He said the district was in discussions with the teachers’ union about a plan that might, for instance, write job descriptions for a range of experience to even out the differences as the federal law requires.

In Baltimore, officials say that this year somewhat more than half the classes are being taught by teachers who are highly qualified—up from 34 percent three years ago. Gary Thrift, the director of human resources, said the 82,000-student district has been following a “three F” procedure for two years: forewarning teachers about their qualification status, freezing their salaries if it is not in order, and, as a last resort, firing. About 35 teachers were let go last year, and he expects the number will be triple that this year.

At the same time, the district has put in place up to $13,000 per person in bonus money for new hires this year, expanded its use of alternative certification, started a program that allows new teachers to work alongside veterans for their first semester, recruited teachers from the Philippines, and worked with the New York City-based New Teacher Project to improve hiring, among other initiatives.

In Memphis, Tenn., where this year just over 90 percent of core classes are taught by highly qualified teachers, Patricia C. Pratt-Cook, the human-resources director, said the 119,000-student district’s work with the New Teacher Project over three years had “definitely gotten a larger pool [of candidates]. … We’ve been very successful in increasing the quality of people in the pool as well as the quantity.”

Still, she said, she has sometimes had to rehire teachers who had not attained highly qualified status because she found no better candidates for their jobs.

In rural areas, the situation can be even more desperate, according to many educators in such districts.

Daisy Slan, who led the schools in East Feliciana Parish, La., for seven years, said she dismissed maybe a score of able teachers with several years’ experience because they had not passed the teacher-certification exam. Because teachers could find much better-paid and sometimes easier jobs in nearby districts, including Baton Rouge, finding and keeping educators in the largely poor, African-American district was always a problem, she said.

When the state, under pressure from the federal law, virtually stopped issuing license waivers, Ms. Slan lost valuable flexibility, she contended.

Far to Go

“I think the law did more harm than good,” Ms. Slan said of the No Child Left Behind Act’s impact on teacher quality. “On the surface, you could understand why the provision may have been in the law, … but [when you are replacing teachers, largely from the community,] who had the wherewithal to do a good job for our students with teachers who are certified but who can’t or won’t or don’t have the energy to teach the population of children we have, they weren’t necessarily helping us.”

Despite that view, Ms. Slan notes that when she retired from the district two years ago, the number of certified teachers had roughly doubled, to about 60 percent.

Some observers of the law are most dubious about positive effects in rural areas, where recruitment in specialty fields can be especially difficult, and the gains from assigning teachers to more than one subject—meaning they must show themselves knowledgeable in each—can be the greatest.

At the same time, there is widespread agreement that getting school administrators to rethink teacher assignments in suburban and urban schools may be the provision’s greatest achievement.

“It has forced districts and states to really think about assigning teachers based more on their expertise and less on what was best for the schedule,” said Ms. Cornett of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Meanwhile, the chorus of those calling attention to the range of measures needed to deepen the pool of good teacher candidates and boost the effectiveness of those already in the classroom is growing louder. Even the Education Department is in on the act.

More than a year ago, for instance, the then-lead staff official for the initiative in the department, René Islas, began describing the “highly effective” teacher. The 5-year-old law is due for reauthorization by Congress this year.

From transforming accomplished classroom teachers into coaches for their peers, to finding ways to pay the best teachers more, much remains to be done, observers say.

“The [NCLB] law brought attention to the teaching force, and it’s not bad to have a minimum standard,” said Ms. Coulter of the Education Commission of the States. “What should naturally follow from that is: What are our standards for certification and for preparation programs? What are our standards for effective teaching?”

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