TEACHERS: New and Old, Judged Chiefly on Same Standards

By Bess Keller — November 01, 2005 7 min read
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As the state official who oversees teacher-qualification rules, Dorothy Gotlieb is proud, she says, of the work Colorado has done to decide how veteran educators will meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Colorado’s standard is devoid of the loopholes that have drawn criticism to other states’ policies, many of which, observers have suggested, fall short of both the letter and the spirit of the law’s provision on “highly qualified” teachers. Colorado, in contrast, got the only A for its plan among 39 graded by a national group concerned with teacher quality.

The state’s standard—which calls for experienced teachers to meet almost the same requirements as new teachers—is also a practical success, according to Ms. Gotlieb, the deputy education commissioner. Understandable and acceptable to most Colorado educators, it could make a difference in the overall quality of the state’s teachers, she believes.

Yet few in Colorado beyond top state education officials have unqualified praise for the way the standard turned out, especially given the varying needs of districts across the state. With less than a school year to go before the law’s original deadline for all teachers to be highly qualified, many Colorado educators are hoping for changes to the requirements or at least more help in fulfilling them.

‘An Open Process’

The state board of education adopted the standard in 2003 at the recommendation of Ms. Gotlieb, a former state representative and Denver school board member.

Beforehand, state education officials convened a committee representing a broad base of districts and education groups to advise them.

An alternative route to highly qualified status, otherwise known as a HOUSSE, that would allow teachers to substitute evidence of growth in students’ achieve- ment for the other criteria has not been put into practice.
SOURCE: Education Week

“The best thing I thought Colorado did was [it] had an open and authentic process,” said Eric Hirsch, who helped organize the group as the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Teaching, an advocate of high-quality teachers in the state. Mr. Hirsch has since become the executive director of the Center for Teaching Quality, a research and advocacy group in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Ms. Gotlieb points to the state education department’s collaborative relationship with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, as one factor in making a high standard stick.

Groundwork was laid, too, she said, by recent work on Colorado’s teacher-licensing system, part of the attention the Rocky Mountain State has paid in the past few years to the quality of teachers. A sponsor of legislation that helped shape the system while she was a Republican lawmaker, Ms. Gotlieb was hired in 2002 by the state schools chief, William J. Moloney, to head the licensing division.

“We just took a different turn in the road than other places did. Because we were already so far along that road, it was easy,” the deputy commissioner said, explaining why Colorado’s standard is perhaps the most stringent in the country.

What Ms. Gotlieb doesn’t mention is that it’s easier to hold the bar high in a state, such as Colorado, that is facing just moderate enrollment growth and attracts most of the teachers it needs.

To be deemed “highly qualified,” a Colorado classroom veteran has one option more than those available to a new teacher, who must either complete a college major or pass a test in the subject he or she teaches. The veteran can have the major, take the test, or accumulate 24 college credits or the equivalent in professional development in the relevant subject. That 24-credit rule falls six credits short of the state’s definition of a major. Still, it equals what the licensing system allows in the case of a teacher receiving a license “endorsement” to teach a second subject.

In effect, then, the state offers no alternative route for experienced teachers, the option known as a HOUSSE, for “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation.” Federal law does not require one, and in fact, some advocates of improved teacher quality fought its inclusion.

At least 37 states do have a HOUSSE plan, but most of them, according to the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, put too much stock in subjective evaluations, such as reviews of classroom documents or principals’ observations. The report on the state teacher-quality policies by the privately organized council considers passing a number of college classes or a test is a better guarantee that teachers know their subject matter.

Colorado’s rules do permit teachers to meet the “highly qualified” requirement via the HOUSSE route if a teacher can demonstrate subject-matter mastery with three years of student-achievement growth as shown by standardized-test scores. But in the two years that the state has been working on its plan, no formula has yet been devised for doing that.

“We’re looking for a district that wants to work out the implementation,” Ms. Gotlieb said.

The state’s lack of a functional HOUSSE—and the exclusive use of scores from standardized tests should it come to fruition—are frustrating to Linda K. Barker, the Colorado Education Association’s point person on the No Child Left Behind law’s teacher-quality provisions. The union unsuccessfully pressed for teachers’ years of experience and evaluations from their principals to count toward the federally mandated status.

“The current definition gives veteran teachers some options,” said Ms. Barker, because professional development, including travel, can substitute for college courses. “But for the HOUSSE, we’d like to look at other indicators besides just standardized tests.”

Rural Areas Struggle

Like many other education leaders in the state, Ms. Barker believes that rural areas will have the most trouble meeting the teacher requirements and the most to lose as the federal deadline approaches. The goal is for all teachers to be highly qualified by the end of this school year, although federal officials have provided extra flexibility for schools in rural communities and, as of last week, for states that meet certain criteria. (“States Given Extra Year On Teachers”, the issue.)

The interim executive director of the Alliance for Quality Teaching, Tim R. Westerberg, said that the relatively deep pool of applicants for jobs in suburban and even urban areas of the state means that employers there can apply a strict content-knowledge standard without losing the best available candidates.

“It’s working pretty well there,” said Mr. Westerberg, who was the principal at a suburban Denver high school for more than 25 years. “But you hit a different story when you talk to a superintendent out in the eastern plains or the Western Slope.”

David Van Sant, the superintendent of the 1,000-student Strasburg district, in the plains east of Denver, calls the rural story “a tragedy.” At one 75-student high school he knows, the music teacher does not meet the standard for highly qualified because he is certified at the elementary level, though two-thirds of the students in the school play in its award-winning band.

“In our state, you tell people who have gained skill that the only way you can get it is by taking a class,” Mr. Van Sant said. “That defies what the whole purpose of the law is.”

Sentiments like Mr. Van Sant’s have made John C. Hefty, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, focus less on the plan and more on the communication he believes would make it an effective tool for ushering out only those teachers who don’t serve students.

“State people need to find ways to meet face to face with more school district people and have a conversation about what the requirements are and what flexibility exists,” he said. He and others said that many teachers and administrators were unaware, for instance, that professional development could meet the standard for experienced teachers.

Without exercising the allotted flexibility, the standard spells “a net loss” in teacher quality for the state, Mr. Hefty contended.

Others aren’t looking for a loss, but they aren’t sure that the Colorado plan will result in much of a gain either.

Even for subject-matter knowledge, which is only part of what makes a skilled teacher, a college major shouldn’t be considered the “gold standard,” said Mr. Hirsch of the Center for Teaching Quality. College majors represent different levels of rigor at different institutions, he said, and the crying need is for all teachers to get high-quality, content-specific professional development.

“I don’t know the great benefit of the Colorado system yet,” Mr. Hirsch said. “Is getting the high-quality stamp in Colorado really going to mean something very different from being highly qualified in another state?”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Meeting the Federal Standard Teachers: New and Old, Judged Chiefly on Same Standards


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