N.D., Utah Dispute Federal Findings on Teacher Quality

By Bess Keller — January 11, 2005 4 min read
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Teacher-licensing officials in two states plan to fight recent findings by the U.S. Department of Education that most of their elementary teachers are not “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The findings could mean that veteran teachers in those states—North Dakota and Utah—and by implication, elsewhere, would have to offer evidence beyond their teaching licenses that they meet the federal standard. Many have two or more decades of classroom experience.

“We are working with the Utah attorney general on a response,” said Joan D. Patterson, the coordinator of educator licensing in the Utah education department. “I believe we are going simply to say, ‘No, we are compliant; … we have gone through the procedures you require.’ ”

North Dakota’s director of licensing, Janet Welk, said she and the educator-licensing board to which she reports are working to set up a qualifying procedure for the affected teachers that would meet federal requirements. But state officials are also, she said, pushing “basically to have the determination reversed.” At stake could be federal education funding, especially that earmarked for administering programs.

North Dakota and Utah licensing officials have ruled that at the elementary level a state teaching credential is sufficient to meet the federal standard. The licenses for elementary teachers are most often backed by an elementary education major from a state institution, which the licensing directors say represents more than enough learning of academic content to qualify the teachers.

But in recent “monitoring visits” to the two states, federal education officials told the directors that an elementary education major, experience, and even an advanced license are not necessarily enough. The determinations are still informal, and federal officials refused to discuss them until final reports are issued to the states, perhaps later this month. But Ms. Welk estimates that an additional half-dozen states will be in the same boat once the visits—now only a fifth completed—are done.

‘Completely Unacceptable’

The federal law calls for all teachers of “core” subjects to be highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year. In general, teachers are deemed “highly qualified” when they hold at least a standard license and show command of the subjects they teach. Elementary teachers who were in the classroom when the law took effect are allowed to show mastery either by taking a subject-matter exam or meeting requirements set by their states that constitute a “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSSE.

North Dakota did not set up a HOUSSE for its veteran elementary teachers, and Utah’s relies on a licensing-renewal process that requires positive evaluations of teachers’ work by their principals and satisfactory completion of college and school-district professional-development courses.

Both Ms. Welk in North Dakota and Ms. Patterson in Utah say they are confident that the small number of public institutions in their states that have prepared the majority of elementary teachers require enough courses in the subjects taught at that level to ensure mastery. And they both point to the national test scores of their elementary students as evidence, saying they are above average.

“I’d like my [U.S.] senators and representatives to look my deans of education dead in the eye and say, ‘Your programs are insufficient,’ ” Ms. Patterson said.

In North Dakota, all three members of the congressional delegation have already written the Department of Education to protest the determination and complain that federal officials blindsided the state.

“For state officials to be informed of this determination just 18 months short of the 2005-06 deadline is completely unacceptable,” wrote Sen. Kent Conrad and Rep. Earl Pomeroy in a joint letter. All three members of the delegation, who are Democrats,voted for the No Child Left Behind law.

No Surprise?

Nonetheless, in North Dakota, the state education department, which is separate from the board that controls teacher licensing, warned two years ago that federal officials were likely to seek individualized evidence of knowledge beyond an elementary education major, according to state Superintendent Wayne G. Sanstead.

“The legislature didn’t buy it, neither did the Education Standards and Practices Board, and certainly the teachers in general didn’t,” he said last week.

Many observers believe state officials have been set a difficult task in enforcing the “highly qualified” provision of the law, given their limited resources, tardy guidance from federal officials, and veteran teachers’ opposition.

“I can understand the states’ frustration,” said Jennifer Azordegan, an analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a research and policy group that serves state education officials. But, she added, “I think a lot of people can agree that what the department is doing is still in the spirit of the law.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as N.D., Utah Dispute Federal Findings on Teacher Quality


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