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States hand in teacher quality numbers

Most states say they are close to getting teachers rated highly qualified to teach every math, history, language and other core class by the end of the school year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Under federal pressure, most states are close to getting teachers who are rated highly qualified in front of every math, history, language and other core class by the end of the school year. Or so they say.

Thirty-three states claim 90 percent to 99 percent of their main classes have teachers who are highly qualified. That means, based on the No Child Left Behind law, that those teachers have a bachelor’s degree, a state license and proven competency in every subject they teach.

Most of the other states put their numbers a tier below — 70 percent to 89 percent — and a few are way behind, according to a review of new state data by The Associated Press.

The accuracy of those accounts is now under review by the Education Department, which is checking not just total numbers but also the figures within poor and struggling schools.

President Bush and Congress have promised parents that 100 percent of core classes will have highly qualified teachers by the end of the school year.

That pledge is a big part of Bush’s education law, the pride of his domestic agenda.

With few states, if any, expected to reach full compliance on time, the department plans to allow an extra year to states that have shown a good-faith effort. Others could lose millions of dollars in aid if federal officials don’t see enough progress.

Do states make the grade?
“What we’re trying to measure is whether states are on track,” said René Islas, who oversees teacher quality for the department’s elementary and secondary education office. “They don’t necessarily have to be at 100 percent, but they have to be pretty close, and they have to be pretty close in all of the areas we’re measuring.”

States must prove they have:

  • Set a fair definition of “highly qualified.” Although the federal law sets the parameters, states have huge leeway when it comes to qualifying their veteran teachers.
  • Provided parents with a clear picture of how many classes are taught by qualified teachers. This is supposed to happen in state, district and school report cards.
  • Given complete and accurate data about their teacher corps to the Education Department, including the disparities between poor and wealthier schools.
  • Ensured that poor and minority children do not have a higher percentage of inexperienced or unqualified teachers than any other youngsters.

By May 15, states will find out where they stand and whether they will lose federal aid, which is the government’s only real enforcement tool.

The law cannot force teachers to be fired or reassigned. But federal leaders hope parents, when informed about under-qualified teachers, will pressure schools to act.

Although the federal term is “highly qualified,” the definition is widely regarded as more of a minimum qualification, because it requires teachers to know what they teach.

Nationwide, 91 percent of core classes were taught by highly qualified teachers in the 2004-05 school year, up from 86 percent the year before, according to preliminary state data. Teacher data lags a year behind, so last year’s numbers are being used to judge the current year.

Doubts remain
Skepticism remains over whether states have inflated their quality numbers by setting easy standards for veteran teachers. Some states have allowed teachers to qualify based on conferences attended, awards won, years taught and other accumulated experience.

“It would be unwise to place a lot of stock in these numbers, because we have watched states game this system to make it look like all of their teachers are highly qualified,” said Ross Wiener, policy director at The Education Trust, which helped shape the law.

Fresh federal scrutiny of whether poor and minority students are getting a fair share of qualified teachers will help, Wiener said. But he called that enforcement a few years late.

Islas, the department official, said the number of highly qualified teachers is on the rise because states have made serious efforts as the deadline gets close. They have stepped up teacher training, and the federal government has sent teams to the states to help.

Alaska lags
One state, Alaska, is significantly behind all the rest. Only 34 percent of its core classes are taught by highly qualified teachers. Officials explain that many teachers handle every subject and have not come close to getting qualified in each one.

Alaska has about 500 schools, and 100 have three teachers or less, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the state’s education department. “It’s literally the one-room school house,” Fry said.

There is one reprieve: Teachers in isolated, rural areas have an extra year to qualify.