States Given Extra Year on Teachers

By Bess Keller — November 01, 2005 6 min read
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States and districts are going to get more breathing room to meet the federal mandate that teachers be “highly qualified,” but extending the deadline, teacher-quality advocates say, could ultimately bring more pressure on school officials to make progress.

That’s because the one-year reprieve dangled late last month by federal education officials is contingent on evidence that a state has been reordering its priorities and building the systems needed to take responsibility for the quality of its teaching force under the No Child Left Behind Act. The deal also requires a state to map out how it intends to move forward and then subject that map to the scrutiny of federal officials.

In an Oct. 21 letter to chief state school officers, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that officials of her department would not necessarily yank funds from states that “do not quite reach the 100 percent goal” for highly qualified teachers—a goal set by the nearly 4-year-old No Child Left Behind law. Rather, she wrote, the Department of Education would apply a series of tests to decide whether states should get the extra time.

“If they were to do everything in this letter and do it well, it would represent getting serious and a positive development,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which promotes high academic standards for poor and minority children.

Mr. Wiener’s group and others have complained for more than two years that federal officials were not doing enough to help states reach the goal, by neglecting both guidance and oversight.

The standard has been one of the most controversial sections of the law, which holds schools accountable for producing gains in student achievement. Teacher quality is essential to that drive, backers of the law stress.

But critics of the mandate point, in part, to the practical hurdles local officials face in finding enough highly qualified teachers for some classrooms—in rural areas and for special education students at the secondary level, for instance. Others also challenge the provision’s focus on subject-matter knowledge, rather than evidence of such knowledge in combination with teaching skill.

To be deemed “highly qualified,” teachers of core subjects must hold a standard license and demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they teach. It is up to the states to decide what constitutes such a demonstration, although federal guidelines suggest it should be equivalent to at least a college-level test or a minor.

René Islas, a special assistant for teacher quality in the Education Department, maintained that the agency was not retreating from the deadline—the end of this school year—but rather outlining how officials would treat states that did not make it.

“We get questions all the time from states,” said Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman, “and instead of answering them piecemeal, we decided to tell them our thinking.”

Observers point out, though, that fudging the deadline is a way of avoiding the politically most unpalatable choices.

‘Renegotiate the Plan’

“They could have been in a position next spring of riding herd on and punishing 40 states,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington research and advocacy group. Her statement reflects the widespread view that few states are close to meeting the goal by the end of this school year, and, worse, that many have not taken the steps toward reaching it that the law requires.

Changing the Rules

The U.S. Department of Education has announced another in a series of policy changes designed to give states and school districts additional flexbility in meeting requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Oct. 21, 2005 (Secretary Margaret Spellings)
Highly Qualified Teachers: States that have made a “good-faith effort” to meet the requirement for highly qualified teachers will get an extra year, to the end of the 2006-07 school year, to achieve the goal.

Sept. 29, 2005 (Spellings)
Disaster Relief: Schools and districts outside the geographic areas where Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck but “heavily impacted” by those disasters may be able to establish separate subgroups of displaced students for the 2005-06 school year. Those students need not be counted in any other subgroup. A provision in the federal law already delays sanctions for schools and districts directly affected by “exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances” if they fail to make AYP.

April 7, 2005 (Spellings)
Modified Assessments: Schools or districts can use alternative assessments, based on modified standards, to test students who can make progress toward grade level but not at the same speed as their peers. No more than 2 percent of all students assessed can be accommodated this way for determining AYP.

March 29, 2004 (Secretary Rod Paige)
Test-participation rates: States may average participation over a two- or three-year period to meet the demand that schools test at least 95 percent of students. When calculating participation, schools may omit students who miss the testing window because of a medical emergency.

March 15, 2004 (Paige)
Highly qualified teachers: Extra flexibility is provided for teachers in rural communities and for science teachers in meeting the “high qualified” mandate. The revisions also streamline alternative means for current teachers seeking to demonstrate subject-matter mastery in multiple subjects.

Feb. 19, 2004 (Paige)
English-language learners: Schools are not required to give children with limited proficiency in English their states’ regular reading tests if such students have been enrolled in U.S. schools for less than a year. States may count students who have become proficient in English within the past two years in their calculations of adequate yearly progress for English-language learners.

Dec. 9, 2004 (Paige)
Students with disabilities: New federal rules make it easier to for states to test students with the most severe cognitive disabilities and include their test results in schools’ performance ratings.

Yet blame for that situation could easily be turned back on the Education Department, which left states without clear and forceful direction for nearly three years, Ms. Walsh and Mr. Wiener both said.

California is one state that will seek the extension. “Our first response is that we are confident California is indeed making a good-faith effort toward meeting this goal,” said Penni Hansen, a consultant in the state education department. “We are requesting additional guidance and technical assistance in reaching the goal.”

In her letter, Ms. Spellings—who took office in January—said federal officials would decide what kind of action to take by 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 such 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 wealthier, white peers—a more stringent standard than “highly qualified.”

If the examination shows a state has made good progress in those areas, it can win a reprieve by submitting a detailed plan for meeting the 100 percent target in the 2006-07 school year. “They are going to have to renegotiate the plan,” Ms. Aspey said. “We want you to show us by January what you are going to be doing, what innovations you plan.”

Contractors for the Education Department began verifying teacher-quality information from states last year, and the work has intensified since then, Mr. Islas said. “If a state is lying to parents about the status of teachers, lying to the secretary of education, that’s something we can take action on, something we can hold states accountable for,” he said.

Emphasis on Equity

Under the law, states are required to ensure that schools and districts provide information to parents about the qualification status of their children’s teachers. States must also report to federal officials the percentage of classes taught by highly qualified teachers, including the percentage in high-poverty schools.

Mr. Wiener of the Education Trust said he was especially glad to see Ms. Spellings’ letter call for poor and minority children to have equal access to highly qualified teachers. “While this basic focus on fairness should have been first on the agenda when implementation of NCLB got under way, it’s better later than never—as long as they actually … enforce the equity provisions this time around,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The secretary’s letter acknowledged that total 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 that federal education officials have “real concerns” that states have not adequately laid the groundwork for meeting the federal standard.

Several advocates for improvement in teacher quality expressed worries about the energy that is going into what they characterized as either a quick or an inadequate fix.

“The definition of a ‘highly qualified’ teacher remains mushy and represents minimally qualified teachers at best,” Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality, in Chapel Hill, N.C., wrote in an e-mail.

Margaret Gaston, an expert on teachers in California and the executive director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, located in Santa Cruz, said the rush to get all teachers in her state up to the “highly qualified” bar in the next year or two might distract leaders from a more important long-term task: ensuring a stream of well-prepared and effective teachers into the future.

However many Californian teachers meet the federal standard, she said, “it’s way too soon to heave a sigh of relief.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as States Given Extra Year OnTeachers


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