updated 3/15/2004 4:06:49 PM ET 2004-03-15T21:06:49

The nation’s schools, under deadline to get a top teacher in every core class, have won some wiggle room in areas where the assignment is proving unrealistic.

Rural teachers, science teachers and those who teach multiple subjects will get leeway in showing they are highly qualified under federal law, the Education Department said Monday.

The changes are most sweeping for rural teachers, thousands of whom who will get an extra school year — until spring 2007, three years from now — to show they are qualified in all topics they teach. Newly hired rural teachers will get three years from their hire date.

The easing of rules is the latest effort by the Bush administration to show it is trying to answer concerns about the No Child Left Behind Act without watering it down.

The law is at the center of Bush’s domestic agenda, and his officials face a public relations challenge as more schools pop up on “needing improvement” lists, state leaders talk of federal intrusion and congressional Democrats complain of shaky federal enforcement.

Highly qualified requirements
States must get a highly qualified teacher in all core subjects, from math to history, by the end of the 2005-06 school year. “Highly qualified” means teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, state certification and proven knowledge in the subjects they teach.

In practical terms, some schools have found the requirement exasperating, particularly for teachers who handle multiple subjects, as many in rural districts do. To show they are competent in their subjects, current teachers must pass a test in each topic, hold a college degree in that field or meet a standard of subject-matter knowledge as set by their state.

Now, rural teachers will have extra time to prove they are qualified in all their subjects, provided they are highly qualified in at least one subject and get training in the others. The change will affect an estimated one-third of school districts.

“The standard remains very high,” said a department official familiar with the change. “We’re still saying that teachers need to be highly qualified in all subjects they teach. This is just additional time.”

In another change, states can allow science teachers to show they are highly qualified in the broad field of science — not necessarily in chemistry, biology, or every field of science they teach. States can decide whether to require mastery of individual science disciplines.

The move matches federal law, which gets specific about core subjects such as history, economics and civics but leaves broad the topic of “science,” department officials said. This could significantly ease pressure on rural schools, which may only have one science teacher.

States must set standards
The third policy change is more procedural.

Under law, states must set a standard that existing teachers can meet to show they are qualified in each subject without having to take a test or get a new degree. Teachers may qualify, for example, based on such factors as professional training or publishing of articles.

The new guidance makes clear that current teachers don’t have to go through this evaluation process for each subject they teach; states can decide whether to give teachers overlapping credit for similar subjects, such as those in the social sciences.

The law does not spell out specific penalties for states that don’t get a top teacher in every core class by the deadline. Department officials say they will recognize those that make good-faith efforts, although ultimately, withholding federal money is an option.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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