With the clock ticking down to the 2005-06 deadline set by federal law for a highly qualified teacher in every core-subject classroom, state education officials are welcoming the latest guidance on the subject from the U.S. Department of Education.
At the same time, neither the officials nor the educators awaiting their policies pretend that the complicated matter of determining who meets the “highly qualified” standard in the No Child Left Behind Act, let alone the path to more good teachers in underperforming schools, has been settled by last month’s 42-page paper.
“The new guidance has been helpful because it has clarified some questions states have brought out,” said Cindy Prince, the director of teacher professional development for the Council of Chief State School Officers. “But there are some areas in which they have more questions.”
Among the topics further detailed by the September paper, which follows one released last December, are requirements for some specific categories of teachers, including those in middle schools and those teaching students with disabilities.
Both areas have posed problems for administrators, who have to sort out whether teachers teach a “core” subject, and are thus covered under the law, or whether they teach more than one subject and must be assessed for knowledge of more than one subject, as the law requires.
For instance, if a special education teacher pairs with a language arts teacher to adapt instructional methods for learners with disabilities, does the special education teacher need to demonstrate knowledge of language arts? The answer appears to be no. If, however, the special education teacher takes a language arts class solo, and a mathematics class solo, the guidance suggests that the teacher must show competence in both subjects.
The new guidance also addresses the question of how states can assess the subject knowledge of veteran teachers. The law specifies that starting this year, new teachers must show their command of a subject by passing a test chosen by the state or, in the case of secondary school teachers, by having majored in that subject in college. But states are allowed to assess teachers who were already in the classroom last year according to what the law calls a “high objective uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSSE.
Some observers say that is a tricky part of the law because business-as-usual can too easily be dressed up as a HOUSSE, so the guidance offered last month is sorely needed. The paper reminds state officials that the standard for assessing teachers’ knowledge must be objective, and that each method must be backed by a “strong and compelling rationale.”
Kathy Christie, who has been following the law’s provision on highly qualified teachers for the Education Commission of the States, in Denver, said that some states appear to be depending too heavily on a teacher’s years of experience in teaching that subject, coupled with standard classroom observations.
“If I were looking at that,” Ms. Christie argued, “I’d say it is not an objective measure.”
State officials are not the only ones glad for the new guidance.
“It has been beneficial to me because it addresses the concerns that our middle school teachers have had,” said Linda Edwards, who is the director of teaching and learning for the Colorado Education Association. She said she has been busy warning teachers to be wary of district officials who have told them, “‘Don’t worry; we’ll take care of it.’”
“We say, ‘No, you have to look at this personally, how it affects you.’ ... [This guidance] gives the black-and-white evidence our association needs,” Ms. Edwards said, in working with teachers and school officials to make sure that veteran teachers make the “highly qualified” cut.
While the Education Department paper was generally deemed helpful by those grappling with the No Child Left Behind law, a group that helped shape the legislation said the guidance “continued to underwhelm and disappoint” in the area of closing the so-called teacher gap.
The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children in schools, criticized the department as not doing enough to dispel the notion that the law is punitive toward schools that are the furthest from the goal of having only highly qualified teachers at the head of classrooms in all the core subjects.
The law actually authorizes funds that can be used in various ways to address the problems, a point that should be emphasized, said Ross Wiener, the director of policy for the Washington group.
Mr. Wiener further faulted the guidance for not pushing the five states the department identifies as not having tests in place for new elementary teachers and, in general, for soft-pedaling state obligations for assessing teachers.
As of late last week, the Education Department had no direct response to the criticisms, but Carolyn Snowbarger, Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s special assistant for teacher quality, stressed that providing guidance was an ongoing effort. She pointed to the department’s new “teacher-assistance corps,” which has begun visits to all 50 states with the aim of helping state officials.
“As you begin working with states, that’s where you realize the need for further clarification,” she said. “We try to follow up.”
Also, in the next few weeks, the department expects to issue guidance specifically addressing the use of federal money for upping the number of highly qualified teachers in schools and districts.