City Districts Seek Teachers With Licenses

By Catherine Gewertz — September 11, 2002 9 min read
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Last fall, Gloria Roman’s school was branded as the second-worst in Chicago for its high share of teachers who were not fully certified. Less than a year later, after a determined effort fueled by the pressure of new federal mandates, she has a better-qualified staff and a more optimistic outlook.

“I’m feeling great,” the principal of Ana Roque de Duprey Elementary School said in a first-day-of-school interview, the tumult of children audible in the background. “It will be a good year.”

A city audit of Chicago’s 81 worst- performing schools in October 2001 showed that 11 of the 25 teachers—44 percent— at Roque de Duprey lacked some of the training or tests necessary to qualify for a permanent Illinois credential.

As school began last week, Ms. Roman’s staff of 24 teachers included only four—17 percent—with less than full credentials.

Stories like Ms. Roman’s are unfolding in urban schools around the country, as administrators channel unprecedented energy into meeting the demands of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The federal law requires public schools to have a “highly qualified” educator teaching every class in core academic subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

The pressure is already on, since finding sufficient numbers of such teachers isn’t easy. As of the first day of this school year, the heat intensified, because the law requires any teacher hired to teach core academic subjects in a Title I school or program on or after that day to fit the definition of “highly qualified.”

In general, that means they must have a bachelor’s degree and full state certification and have demonstrated teaching skills and subject-area competence. Alternative-preparation routes to teaching—an increasingly popular option as the demand for teachers rises, and one that usually requires less training—have been deemed an acceptable way to gain credentials under the law.

Big-city districts, which have long struggled with disproportionate shares of uncertified teachers, still are grappling with large numbers of such teachers. But faced with the federal mandates under the new law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they are reporting revamped hiring procedures, pay increases, and other tactics that have delivered significantly more fully certified teachers into their classrooms.

The teacher- qualification definition in the law has ample shares of advocates and critics alike, refueling a simmering debate about how best to define an effective teacher. Some contend the law stands to produce a far more competent teacher corps, while others say that latitude and gaps in the law will do little to improve the plight of the educationally neediest schoolchildren.

‘Ahead of the Game’

At Roque de Duprey Elementary, which serves 400 mostly low-income children in grades K-8 in northwest Chicago, much of the rise in the number of certified staff members came through new hiring.

Seven of the school’s eight newly hired teachers have full certification. The eighth holds a credential in another state and will take a test this fall to become certified in Illinois. Two bilingual education teachers and one gym teacher hold temporary certificates, Ms. Roman said.

This year’s hiring differed from last year’s in two ways, she said. Acutely aware of the new federal law’s requirements, she refused to consider any candidates who lacked full certification. And luckily, the district’s central administrative office had sufficient numbers of such candidates to offer the principal this year.

The Chicago district, with 437,000 students and nearly 600 schools, has been pushing hard to deliver those kinds of choices. No figures have yet been compiled on what portion of this year’s new hires are fully certified, but Ascencion V. Juarez, the district’s chief human resources officer, said his department was “far ahead of its game” this year compared with last.

Already under pressure from district leaders to hire fewer uncertified teachers, Mr. Juarez and his staff ramped up their recruiting strategies. He made visits to universities in and around the city, hoping to build relationships that will deliver more student-teachers.

What was critical, he says, was the decision to jump into an early-hiring strategy. More than 325 fully certified teachers were hired in late May and June for this fall—teachers who might otherwise have been snapped up elsewhere by late summer, when most hiring traditionally is done.

In New York City, the nation’s largest district, with 1.1 million students and 80,000 teachers, a new union-contract provision that hiked starting teachers’ salaries from nearly $32,000 to $39,000 was credited with helping attract certified teachers. As of late August, the district had hired about 8,500 new teachers; about 97 percent were certified, compared with only half last year, according to spokesman Kevin B. Ortiz.

Nearly one-quarter of the new teachers, though, met that requirement by coming through alternative programs, which have been criticized in some quarters as not adequately preparing teachers. More than 2,000 of the new hires came from the city’s Teaching Fellows program, which recruits and trains mid-career professionals who haven’t studied teaching, or the national group Teach For America, which operates similarly but targets recent college graduates.

Gains in L.A.

In Los Angeles, more than 8,500 teachers—23 percent—held emergency certification as of last year, a number the district’s chief operating officer, Thomas C. Boysen, called “grave.”

But as new teachers are hired in the nation’s second-largest district, the picture is improving. Fully 56 percent of this year’s newly hired Los Angeles teachers are certified, compared with only 34 percent last year. Most of the new hires who lack certification are on a “fast track” alternative route toward that end, Mr. Boysen said.

He said the 737,000-student district was able to hire more certified teachers this year because the state raised class-size limits, easing the pinch on the teacher supply. In addition, the district revised its hiring procedures to bring fully certified candidates to the immediate attention of schools in hard-to-staff, low-income areas such as southeast and south-central Los Angeles.

Administrators from the subdistricts in those areas would literally intercept candidates at the door of the central-administration office with a smile and a handshake, and make a pitch for working in their schools, Mr. Boysen said. After such chats, candidates were offered—and often accepted—a ride to schools with vacancies, where they had a tour and met the staff.

That approach appears to have led to low teacher-vacancy rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District. By the start of this month, the district’s 800 schools were 98.5 percent staffed, Mr. Boysen said. Vacancy rates in the toughest-to- staff areas were the same or only slightly higher than in other areas, he said.

Problems Persist

But while the picture is improving, the problem of uncertified teachers still dogs urban districts.

In Philadelphia, 10 percent of teachers held emergency certification last year, and while no numbers have been compiled yet for this year, human resources chief Marjorie H. Adler expects the rate to be only modestly, if at all, lower. The 200,000- student district’s hiring plight has been intensified by candidates’ doubts as it embarks on a massive privatization experiment.

The 95,000-student Baltimore district is funneling its newly hired, fully certified teachers to its Title I schools, a change in strategy driven by the No Child Left Behind Act, said Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo. But less-than-fully- certified teachers, and those who came through alternative-route programs, still make up most of this year’s 835 new hires, she said.

Echoing the worries of other urban superintendents, Ms. Russo said she wonders if she will ever get a fully certified teaching corps. Ironically, an intensive city effort to help 10 of its lowest-performing schools, kicked off last year, underpins her concern.

Even by requiring all of the staff members in those schools to reapply for their jobs, and replacing the half that chose to leave with fully certified teachers, the total certification rate in those schools reached only 72 percent to 75 percent, Ms. Russo said.

That represented great progress, she noted, since previously only 25 percent to 35 percent of their teachers were certified. But it was a vivid demonstration of the difficulty of fully staffing challenging urban schools with certified personnel.

Despite the sincere and intensive efforts of districts across the country, filling classrooms with certified teachers by the end of the 2005-06 school year will be a struggle, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for urban districts. “We’re not facing a problem of will,” he said, “but one of capacity.”

Wiggle Room?

Whether the new federal law will improve the quality of the teacher workforce persists as a subject of debate.

“It’s still up for grabs,” said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and a vice president of its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers. “It definitely has the potential to be helpful by ratcheting up pressure to find, hire, and pay qualified teachers.”

“But it all depends on how much wiggle room [federal officials] allow in interpreting what ‘highly qualified’ means.”

The weakness of the law lies in that definition, some critics say. By including as “highly qualified” teachers who have gained certification through alternative programs, the law puts into classrooms teachers many consider inadequately prepared.

“It’s not truth in advertising,” argued Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. “Once we define as ‘highly qualified’ someone with little experience in the classroom and no pedagogical training, we’re not serving kids. And we’re talking about kids who need the best teachers in America because they have the greatest needs.”

Other critics contend the law will do little to provide substantive improvement for disadvantaged urban students—repeatedly mentioned in many political speeches as precisely the students the law was designed to help—because it does not address the difficulty of retaining teachers or staffing patterns that consistently find lower-paid, less experienced teachers in the neediest schools.

Keeping those new urban educators will require better preparation and support, said Barbara K. Radner, an associate professor of education at DePaul University in Chicago and the director of its center for urban education. Teacher-preparation programs must require at least one year of classroom experience in a variety of socioeconomic settings, she said.

The brand-new teachers she’s been helping train in Chicago are so promising, yet need so much help, Ms. Radner said. “They are bright, resourceful, responsible,” she said. “And they’re looking very, very worried.”

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