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Federal Officials Say N.D., Utah Teachers ‘Qualified’ After All

By Linda Jacobson — March 08, 2005 4 min read
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Score one for the states.

The U.S. Department of Education, after indicating that veteran elementary teachers in North Dakota and Utah might not meet the standards to be rated “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act, has given its approval to both states’ definitions of teacher competence.

Joan D. Patterson, the coordinator for educator licensing in Utah, attributed the change of heart partly to political pressure.

“I think there were enough members of Congress who had been listening to administrators, and school board members, and outraged citizens,” about the frustrations teachers and school districts were having over meeting the “highly qualified” provisions of the law, she said last week.

In North Dakota, for example, all three members of the state’s congressional delegation wrote the Education Department to complain about the preliminary finding. U.S. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, in particular, wrote a blistering letter to then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige, calling it a “brain-dead ruling.”

“Either fix this problem now,” demanded the Democrat, “or join me in deciding to scrap [the law] and start over.”

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And the Utah legislature, led by Republicans, has been pushing for a measure that would thumb the state’s nose at NCLB dictates.

Federal education officials, however, cast their decision in a different light.

M. René Islas, a special assistant to Raymond J. Simon, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said last week that the Education Department never meant to imply that teachers in those states were not highly qualified—officials just needed to see documentation.

“There was a lot of confusion,” Mr. Islas said. “There are a lot of emotions that come into play when you’re talking about jobs.”

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The 3-year-old federal law requires all public school teachers to achieve highly qualified status by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Licensing officials in both North Dakota and Utah had ruled that a state teaching credential at the elementary level was sufficient to meet the federal standard.

But following “monitoring visits” to both states last fall, federal education officials said that completion of an elementary education major, years of experience in the classroom, and even an advanced teaching license were not necessarily enough to be deemed highly qualified.

While the findings did not amount to an official ruling, they meant that potentially thousands of teachers in the two states would be required to pass a licensing exam—a possibility that Ms. Patterson, for one, thought was unreasonable.

“We didn’t think they had a legal position for the ruling,” she said last week. “So we decided to push back.”

In a Feb. 22 letter to the Education Department, Ray Timothy, an associate superintendent in the Utah State Office of Education, outlined how the NCLB regulations are met by the state’s HOUSSE criteria. HOUSSE stands for “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation,” and is the way that veteran teachers, who were on the job before the No Child Left Behind law, can show that they are highly qualified.

For example, instead of requiring experienced teachers to conduct reviews of their college transcripts, Ms. Patterson did it for them. She sampled transcripts for graduates of the state’s colleges of education dating as far back as 1965.

The process showed that teachers from those institutions had earned at least 39 semester hours of the core courses the federal law says elementary teachers must have. Some even had as many as 100 semester hours.

North Dakota did not set up a HOUSSE at all. But Janet Welk, the executive director of the state’s Education Standards and Practices Board, conducted a similar review, going back to 1960.

She found that teachers who graduated with an education major more than 40 years ago still had more than 42 semester hours. In fact, she said, when teachers transfer into the state, they sometimes complain that the state’s standards are too high.

“We’ve always felt very confident that a major in elementary education is what’s necessary in grades 1 through 6,” Ms. Welk said.

Mr. Islas and Carolyn Snowbarger, the director of the federal Education Department’s Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative, said they don’t anticipate more situations like those in Utah and North Dakota, because most states have a HOUSSE for veteran teachers or they require a licensing exam.

Flexibility Acknowledged

At the same time, Mr. Islas said, the department’s staff has worked to improve the way it communicates with the states about the flexibility they have in meeting provisions of the law.

Ms. Welk acknowledged that leeway.

“It’s nice to see that they have been flexible and allowed us to demonstrate that our teachers are highly qualified,” said the North Dakota official.

Despite Utah’s overall position, Ms. Patterson said she did agree with some of the federal officials’ points, such as the need for a policy ensuring that districts hire only highly qualified teachers in Title I schools, which receive aid for disadvantaged students under that federal program.

She also approved of the idea of drafting a plan to track how districts are progressing toward having all teachers attain the status by the end of next school year, the deadline under the federal law.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Federal Officials Say N.D., Utah Teachers ‘Qualified’ After All

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