U.S. Education Department Gives States Reprieve in Meeting ‘Highly Qualified’ Teacher Requirement

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States have been promised a one-year reprieve on equipping every core-subject classroom with a teacher who meets the federal standard of "highly qualified," but only if the states are trying hard enough.

In an Oct. 21 letter to chief state school officers, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that federal officials would not necessarily yank funds from states that "do not quite reach the 100 percent goal" for highly qualified teachers by the end of the current school year—the goal set by the No Child Left Behind Act. Rather, she wrote, federal education officials will apply a series of tests to decide whether states have made enough progress to get the reprieve.

The goal has been one of the most controversial sections of the nearly 4-year-old law, in part, because of the hurdles local officials face in finding enough highly qualified teachers for certain classrooms—in rural areas and for special education students at the secondary level, for instance—and partly because the federal standard focuses on subject-matter knowledge. To be deemed "highly qualified" under federal law, teachers must hold a standard license and demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they teach. It is up to states to decide, within federal guidelines, what constitutes such a demonstration, although it should be equivalent to at least a test at the college level or a college minor.

Ms. Spellings said federal officials would grant the one-year reprieve on the basis of examining whether:

• A state's definition of a highly qualified teacher is consistent with the law;

• Reporting to parents and the public on highly qualified teachers is thorough;

• Collection of data on highly qualified teachers is complete and accurate; and

• Steps are being taken to ensure that "experienced and qualified" educators are as likely to teach poor and minority children as their white and more affluent peers.

If such an examination shows that a state has made good progress toward the goal, it can win a reprieve by submitting a detailed revised plan for meeting the 100 percent target in the 2006-07 school year. The states must make sure, as the law demands, that poor and minority students are no less served by highly qualified teachers than are their more advantaged peers.

The letter acknowledged that 100 percent compliance with the provision would continue to pose challenges in some circumstances, despite concerted efforts. It cited in particular the states and districts seriously affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But it also said U.S. Department of Education officials "have some real concerns" that states have not all laid the groundwork or fully accepted responsibility for meeting the federal standard.

"It is up to the states and districts to do everything possible to ensure that teachers who are not highly qualified can become highly qualified as soon as possible," Ms. Spellings wrote.

Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the department's action was "beside the point."

"I am pleased the feds have thrown a stake in the ground when it comes to defining and reporting on 'highly qualified' teachers—but the stake is way too flimsy and the ground feels more like quicksand than concrete," he wrote in an Oct. 24 e-mail. "The definition of 'highly qualified' teacher remains mushy and represents minimally qualified teachers at best.

"States have been given too little guidance and have little capacity to assemble robust data on truly highly qualified teachers," Mr. Berry continued, "and many school districts (especially rural ones) have too few resources and technical capacity to make good on what is an ambitious and most critical agenda for closing the achievement gap."

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