Federal

States Still Ironing Out ‘Highly Qualified’ Kinks

By Bess Keller — April 18, 2006 4 min read
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Even the last states to be reviewed on their progress for meeting the “highly qualified” teacher provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act have some distance to travel before satisfying the law, according to Department of Education documents and officials.

A case in point is Connecticut, one of the final stops for the federal monitoring teams charged with describing how much a state is on track for ensuring that all its teachers meet the mandate.

In a report delivered to Connecticut last month, federal officials found fault with several ways that the state determines highly qualified status. The report also criticizes the state for not collecting the data needed to show whether progress was being made, for failing to report to the public, and for allowing too much variability in the way veteran teachers can demonstrate they are highly qualified without taking a test or acquiring a college major.

Connecticut garnered more objections than other states, but federal monitors have found no state fully on track to meet all the law’s requirements at the time of their visits.

And while many states have moved closer to satisfying federal officials since then, “I doubt any states are completely out of the process,” said M. René Islas, a special assistant for teacher quality in the Education Department.

Mr. Islas added that several of the same issues have surfaced in many states, such as the requirements that must be met by special education teachers and by veteran elementary teachers. And almost every state fell short in its handling of those who teach more than one subject in social studies, such as history and geography. In each of those instances, states did not rigorously enough ensure that teachers had knowledge of the subjects they taught, according to the monitors.

Clearer Expectations?

The latest round of reviews was tough but clear and detailed, some observers said.

“The expectations are laid out for states in a way I wish they had been laid out for states four years ago but weren’t,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington research and advocacy group that has largely supported the law’s provisions on teachers. “It shows a lot of good organization on the part of the [federal] department.”

The No Child Left Behind law calls for all teachers of core subjects to be highly qualified by the end of this school year, though Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings ruled this past fall that states may avoid the punitive loss of funds for another year if they are making good-faith efforts to comply. The monitoring reports are the starting point for that determination, which the department says it will make by August. As of last week, only Massachusetts had yet to be visited.

In general, teachers are deemed “highly qualified” when they hold at least a standard license and show command of the subjects they teach. New teachers must pass tests of their subject-matter knowledge or complete college majors in their subjects. Teachers who were in the classroom when the law took effect are allowed to meet those standards or separate requirements set by individual states, known as a High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation, or HOUSSE.

Federal officials expect the state evaluations for veterans will be mostly discontinued by the coming school year. Exceptions include secondary teachers in rural areas and some special education teachers who handle multiple subjects.

Officials in some states say that, despite the number of concerns raised in the reports, meeting federal demands has gone smoothly.

“In most cases,” said Allison McClintock, who oversees education policy for the Idaho state board of education, “it was further clarification” that was needed rather than changes.

Nonetheless, Idaho has proposed to alter the way it determines the status of secondary teachers of more than one subject in social studies. Under the proposed new rules, teachers with a state endorsement in, say history, would need to pass the national teacher-licensing Praxis II test in social studies and pass the specific section of that test devoted to the added field, such as geography.

“We are trying—and I’m pretty sure other states are going to do the same thing—we’re trying to work through this,” said Saundra DeKlotz, the federal programs manager for the Idaho school board.

Connecticut’s Case

Unlike some states, Connecticut officials have decided to defend some procedures cited in the review as being out of compliance.

“I hope we’ll have a very strong case, especially with regard to veteran elementary school teachers,” said Frances Rabinowitz, an associate education commissioner.

All told, state officials estimate that the qualifications of some 13,000 of Connecticut’s 42,000 teachers have been thrown into question by the report. The bulk of them are in elementary school, but others whose status is in jeopardy teach children with disabilities or more than one social studies subject.

Ms. Rabinowitz said the elementary teachers who were not tested were considered highly qualified by virtue of their certification, which was granted on the basis of a teacher-preparation program that included strong doses of subject-matter knowledge. “New Hampshire mapped out the courses teachers were required to take, and we want to do the same,” she said.

Despite Connecticut’s court challenge to the No Child Left Behind Act—the only state to put up such resistance—and its reputation for building an improved teacher corps over two decades, Ms. Rabinowitz said she had no questions about fair treatment from the Education Department.

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