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Education agency sets teacher-quality terms

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has decided that states demonstrating a “good faith” effort to improve teacher quality can get a full extra year to comply — if they can prove their case to her.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in an Oct. 12 file photo.Rogelio Solis / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Parents have been promised that kids will get a highly qualified teacher in every core class this year. Now it’s clearer what will happen if they don’t.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has assured states that she won’t strip their federal money if they fail to get all teachers qualified by the end of the school year. But that deal will be offered only to states that show they are making a serious effort.

The terms mark the first time the Education Department has explained how it will enforce the sweeping teacher-quality promise of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Notably, states can get a full extra year to comply — if they can prove their case to Spellings.

Specifically, states must have a legitimate definition of “highly qualified,” report accurate data about the quality of their teachers, and try to make sure poor and minority students do not have a larger share of unqualified teachers than other children do.

Otherwise, Spellings said in a letter to chief state school officers, she may withhold federal money. That’s significant because money is the government’s only major tool of enforcement, and enforcement is the only way parents know whether the promise has been kept.

Nothing in the law or the new guidance forces any unqualified teacher to be fired.

“If you acted in good faith, what we’re going to say is, ‘OK. We need to sit down and talk. What is your game plan?”’ said Assistant Secretary Tom Luce. “’What are you going to do that’s new and different?’ We want to hold people’s feet to the fire.”

It will be up to Spellings’ team to decide who has shown good faith and who hasn’t.

Most states say they’re in compliance
Under the law, teachers in all major subjects are supposed to be highly qualified this year, which means having a bachelor’s degree, state certification and proven competence in every subject they teach. Teachers in isolated, rural areas have an extra year to qualify.

Most states already say that more than 90 percent of their teachers are highly qualified. But independent analyses show those numbers are dubious because of the lax criteria some states have chosen for veteran teachers and because of questions about unreliable data.

In her letter, Spellings acknowledged the challenge of getting top teachers in some small, rural schools and in hard-to-fill subject areas. But she warned she has real concerns that some states have not set appropriate definitions of quality or kept parents informed.

States that end up deemed to have made a strong effort will get a one-year extension to comply, to the end of the 2006-07 academic term. They must explain how they will improve.

Teachers upbeat, but ...
Initial reaction from both teachers unions was upbeat, but with reservations. “You’ve got to give the secretary some credit. I think they’re making some effort,” said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, a union often at odds with the department.

Weaver added, however, that it would have been simpler for the department to just extend the deadline for a year without all the “complicated criteria” for states and districts.

Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the new guidance includes a lot of common sense. But she said it does not address the underlying problem of getting qualified teachers into many rural and urban areas. And teachers aides gain no extra time or help under the new flexibility, Cortese said.

“I don’t think we’ve squarely addressed the issue,” she said.

The department’s enforcement of fair access to quality teachers among all children is overdue, said Fredreka Schouten, senior associate for The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority kids. It is also good news that schools no longer have to worry about exceedingly harsh penalties for failing to get all teachers qualified by this year, she said.

“That was never the case,” she said. “The department should have clarified this long ago, instead of allowing these misguided notions to fester.”