Many Teachers Missing 'Highly Qualified' Mark

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More than half the nation's teachers would have fallen short of the federal government's basic definition of "highly qualified" if a current law had been in effect during the 1999-2000 school year, concludes a Department of Education report on teacher quality.

The release last month of the second annual report to Congress on the subject was closely followed by a General Accounting Office report criticizing the Education Department for its lack of guidance to states in determining who in their teaching corps is highly qualified. The department has announced plans to help states further.

See Also...

View the accompanying map, "Teacher Waivers."

Under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, every elementary school teacher and all secondary school teachers of core subjects— English/language arts, mathematics, science, foreign language, 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 Title I money for disadvantaged students were supposed to have met the necessary criteria last fall.

Progress Cited

Progress is being made, the Education Department report notes. For example, teacher-candidates in 35 states must hold a bachelor's degree to be certified, and as of last October, "a total of 35 states had developed and linked teacher- certification requirements to student content standards," the report says.

Still, 6 percent of all teachers nationwide have not obtained full certification, according to the report. And California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas reported that more than 10 percent of their teachers were working under waivers that allow them to teach with emergency or temporary licenses.

Using what the department deems an "approximate definition" of a highly qualified teacher, the report says that at the secondary level, 50 percent of English teachers, 47 percent of mathematics teachers, 55 percent of science teachers, and 55 percent of social studies teachers were "highly qualified" in the 1999-2000 school year.

That definition includes a teacher who has at least a bachelor's degree, state teacher certification, and a major in the field he or she teaches.

Teachers without such majors, however, can be considered highly qualified if they pass an assessment or meet "a high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation," according to the law.

Those standards are still under development in most states.

By excluding educators who have met such a standard of evaluation, the report incorrectly tabulates how many can be considered highly qualified, contends Kati Haycock, the director of Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group for disadvantaged students.

"It is troubling to say the least," Ms. Haycock said. "The report has a lot of incorrect data."

Questions About Data

Among the measures the department looked at were the number of teachers working under waivers, a number that rose or fell dramatically in some states from the 2000- 01 to the 2001-02 school year. For example, according to last year's report, Pennsylvania had 953 teachers with waivers in the 2000-01 school year. During the 2001-02 school year, that number jumped to 3,814, according to this year's data. And in Utah, the number of such teachers dropped from 2,535 in the 2000- 01 school year to just 532 the following year.

A decrease in the number of waivers could be expected as states move toward compliance with the federal law. Less clear is why the waivers increased in some states. A spokeswoman for the Education Department said the reported data were obtained from the states.

"Is that true," Ms. Haycock asked of the reported data, "or just bad data?"

The report also fails to discuss teacher-preparation programs adequately, she argued.

Meanwhile, the report from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, calls on the Education Department to provide states with more direction in helping them judge highly qualified teachers.

At the request of Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the GAO set out to determine how many teachers met the highly qualified criteria in the 2002-03 school year, how states were planning to use federal funding earmarked to help them meet that requirement, and what conditions were holding states back from effectively reaching the standard.

The GAO report concludes: "We could not develop reliable data on the number of highly qualified teachers because states did not have the information needed to determine whether all teachers met the criteria."

For example, clear criteria for special education teachers and educators entering the field through alternative-certification programs were not available from the federal Education Department until late 2002, the GAO says.

Between July 2002 and May of this year, the GAO surveyed the 50 states and the District of Columbia and received 37 responses. Of those, 32 "said that they needed clear and timely guidance" from the department, the report says.

In addition, state education officials reported that low salaries and a lack of ways to move up in the field make it much more difficult to hire teachers who would be considered highly qualified.

Teaching-Assistance Corps

To help states interpret and implement the law, the Education Department intends to establish a "teaching-assistance corps."

Teams of experts "will offer guidance and feedback on state efforts, address specific state challenges, and provide useful information from other states about promising practices in the field," according to a statement from the federal department.

As states implement the law, "they are getting more complex questions, and we are trying to respond to those," said Rene Islas, a special assistant to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

States must submit information to the Education Department on the numbers of highly qualified teachers in their ranks next month, but need more clarification before they can fulfill that requirement, said Patricia F. Sullivan, the deputy executive director of the division of advocacy and strategic alliances for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"Providing clear guidance and answering states' questions would be helpful," she said.

Education Department directives have not been as rigid for the "highly qualified teacher" standard as they were for the No Child Left Behind Act's "adequate yearly progress" requirement, said Lynn Cornett, the senior vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

"It was more or less, 'Here are the guidelines,' " she said. She added that they differ for elementary teachers, secondary teachers, new teachers, veterans, and special education teachers. Implementing the new law will be a challenge for the states, said Mr. Islas, acknowledging that there is some confusion because of all the changes. By forming the new corps of experts and releasing more guidelines later this month, he added, "we are trying to ease that confusion."

Vol. 22, Issue 43, Pages 30, 32

Published in Print: August 6, 2003, as Many Teachers Missing 'Highly Qualified' Mark
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