NCLB Presents Middle School Complications

By Bess Keller — November 02, 2004 7 min read
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The news this past spring shook public confidence in Pennsylvania’s teachers: Almost two out of three Philadelphia middle school math teachers had failed an exam to gauge their mastery of the subject, their peers in the rest of the state hadn’t done very well either, and neither the state education department nor any other district intended to make public the pass rates of teacher test-takers.

Pennsylvania at the time had seemingly decided to make veteran teachers show that they, just like new teachers, had satisfied the “highly qualified” requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act by having college majors in the subjects they taught or passing a state-set test.

Two months later, though, the state school board opened the door for an alternative route for some classroom veterans, most notably middle school teachers. State officials say that the plan had been in the works for months, and that the test results didn’t bring any new urgency to the project.

Still, the events suggest how worrisome the federal mandate to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006 can be when applied to middle schools.

Almost since President Bush signed the law in January 2002, local and state education officials have voiced concerns that middle-grades teachers would be affected by the “highly qualified” provision far more than teachers at the elementary and high school levels. Disruption and perhaps shortages would result, especially in urban and rural settings, where teacher labor pools are smaller.

Proponents of the provision, on the other hand, warned that states might use the legislation’s flexibility to relax the standard where it is needed most. That, the critics say, is what happened in Pennsylvania.

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, says she worries that the test results for Pennsylvania middle school teachers are “the only glimpse we’re going to get of how serious this problem is.” The Washington-based council, which advocates for reforms in teacher policies, has examined the requirements states have set for their veteran teachers and found many of them wanting.

It’s not, Ms. Walsh stressed, that Pennsylvania’s teachers are less qualified than their peers in other states. “If any state is under the illusion that they are immune to what Pennsylvania found out, which is that many middle school teachers don’t have 10th grade subject-matter knowledge, I think they are misleading themselves,” she said.

‘End Run’

Under the federal law, teachers beyond the elementary grades who were in the classroom two years ago may show their knowledge of academic content by having a college major in the subject, passing a test, or meeting alternative requirements set within broad federal guidelines by the states. Those requirements—known by the acronym HOUSSE for high, objective, uniform state standards—vary among the states, as do certification requirements.

In Arizona, for example, a course in adolescent psychology can help fulfill the requirement for teaching middle school math, according to the teacher-quality council. In Illinois, a teacher with elementary certification can be deemed highly qualified to teach a core subject in middle school after taking what is essentially the test given to aspiring elementary teachers, said Deborah A. Kasak, the executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, a nationwide coalition of organizations concerned with middle school.

“I think there are states doing an end run around the requirements,” Ms. Kasak said.

Federal officials say they have begun monitoring the rules the states have put into place and some changes might be in order.

The Trouble With Hoops

Experts generally give two reasons that more teachers in middle schools than in elementary and high schools do not meet the standards to be judged highly qualified. First, many states have allowed teachers with elementary certification, which generally requires less evidence of depth of knowledge than secondary certification, to teach in middle schools.

And second, the organization of many middle schools has favored assigning teachers to teach more than one subject. To make sure that children are known by their teachers and that subjects are not artificially cut off from one another, middle-grades teachers often operate in teams. Within the teams, teachers may be responsible for more than one subject.

In both cases, fret middle-grades advocates, including many teachers at that level, the cure will be worse than the illness. For one thing, experienced teachers with elementary certification could depart rather than jump through the new hoops, and would take with them competence and commitment.

Cossondra George, a middle school teacher in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, laments the future loss of two colleagues who don’t meet the “highly qualified” standard—one who will go to the district’s elementary school and the other, “probably the best teacher I ever met,” who plans to retire. Ms. George noted that it is not easy to pick up another major when your community is 100 miles from a university.

Linda T. Rossman, the teacher who has decided to retire from the Tahquamenon Areas district, in Newberry, Mich., at the end of next school year, says she might have considered trying to accumulate points for professional development under Michigan’s alternative to a major or taking a test if she had been in her current assignment—science—longer than two years.

But a big part of her decision, says Ms. Rossman, who was named teacher of the year by the Michigan Association of Middle School Educators in 1992, is emotional. “I felt really hurt,” she said. “They are telling me I’m no longer qualified.”

Barbara Lazar, who teaches at Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M., worries that the federal law threatens the teaching teams that many consider an important feature of middle schools.

In her own case, she has been half of a two-teacher 8th grade team responsible for 60 to 70 students annually for the past seven years. But that’s bound to change, she wrote in an e-mail, because she is highly qualified in just one subject, as is her partner. So her team will have to get bigger.

“We will be teaching more kids, students will see more teachers, they will have a chance to ‘get lost’ in these larger communities,” she predicted.

Ms. Kasak of the middle-grades forum said it is largely up to administrators to avoid such potential consequences of the law while making use of it to strengthen teachers’ mastery of content.

But she agrees with many classroom teachers that the law sends the wrong message, not because it requires subject mastery or because it mandates the dismantling of interdisciplinary teams of teachers—it does not naysay teams—but because it ignores so much about high-caliber teaching. Such teaching, middle-grades advocates often contend, takes into account the developmental needs of early adolescents.

“I think people want both and the kids need both … high affect and high content, and the legislation doesn’t promote both,” Ms. Kasak said. State licensing laws are not yet the answer, she argued, because only 22 states require a specialty credential for middle school, although more than 40 recognize one.

No Harder, No Easier

Other advocates fault the law and policymakers for doing little to ease the situation of urban and rural middle schools as they try to find enough good teachers who also meet the standards for being highly qualified.

In the 72,000-student Denver district, the No Child Left Behind law has made credential-tracking more complicated, but it hasn’t led to greater teacher shortages for middle schools, said Robin C. Kane, the human-resources chief. It hasn’t eased the challenge of staffing the schools either.

A recent study by the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, in Chapel Hill, N.C., found that school leaders in many urban and rural districts, and particularly at middle schools, struggle to compete in the teacher labor market. If teachers in such schools leave because of the federal law, it’s more likely than in wealthier districts that they will be replaced by people whose skills and knowledge are inferior.

At the same time, as the Pennsylvania test of middle school teachers showed, schools serving poor and minority children are already more likely to be burdened with teachers who lack content mastery.

The Education Law Center in Pennsylvania originally protested state education officials’ plan for allowing some teachers, especially in middle schools, to bypass the initially required college major or exam, and meet the “highly qualified” standard by means of an alternative, called the NCLB Bridge Certificate program.

“Our concern is that the Bridge program is going to be used significantly in hard-to-staff schools and perpetuate their hard-to-staff nature,” said Baruch Kintisch, a lawyer with the Harrisburg center.

It’s possible under the Bridge regulations, now in draft form, to rack up the needed points to be deemed highly qualified through classroom experience, tutoring experience, self-assessed professional development, and awards. That doesn’t match the rigor of a test or a major, critics argue.

“A rigorous alternative standard is a reasonable goal,” Mr. Kintisch said. “The problem with the choices Pennsylvania has made is that they are rushed.”

The state board, which gave tentative approval to the program in June, is expected to have the final regulations by Nov. 1. Teachers would have 1½ years to comply.


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