California Teacher Requirements Under Fire
By Megan Twohey, Staff Writer
The law mandates that low-income school districts hire only those new teachers this year who are certified and "highly qualified," which the law defines as teachers who have at least a bachelor's degree and pass a "rigorous" state certification exam. It says that by 2006, all teachers must be "highly qualified" and school districts that fail to comply risk losing their federal funding.
But this year, confusion and frustration - reign over the definition of "highly qualified" and whether, and how, the law's provision can be enforced.
California education officials consider teacher interns and teaching novices with bachelor degrees and emergency teaching permits as "highly qualified" because they meet the degree requirement. California's Board of Education said so in a routine funding application to the U.S. Department of Education in May, which was approved in June.
But when California U.S. Rep. George Miller, an architect of the "No Child Left Behind Act", found out last week that these types of teachers are allowed in California classrooms, he lambasted the state board of education for accepting hiring standards that he said are in violation of the law.
In a letter to state board members, Miller declared: "This is an audacious and reckless action that suggests a lack of regard for students, parents and taxpayers."
California school officials defended the state's standards, maintaining that they meet the federal requirements.
The U.S. Department of Education, which is supposed to enforce the law, sounded as confused as everyone else. Last week a department spokesman told reporters that California's policy "would not pass muster."
But later, in a separate interview, Stephanie Babyak, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman, acknowledged that the federal agency had not reviewed California's definition of a "highly qualified" teacher in the application before it was approved.
"It's kind of confusing," Babyak said.
The commotion over California's teaching standards is compounding the already ambiguous nature of the new federal requirement on teacher quality, which many states say they cannot meet. Fortunately for them, federal officials are not planning to crack the whip anytime soon.
"There are consequences we can impose, including cutting off of public funds," says Jane Glickman, another department spokeswoman. "But a state would have to be blatantly thumbing its nose at the law for us to act."
Congress included the teacher quality provisions in the "No Child Left Behind" Act in order to boost the caliber of teaching in the nation's public schools. Numerous studies show that good teacher quality, more than class size and other factors, leads to high student achievement.
The most up-to-date definition of "highly qualified" is in a federal guidance to the states that has yet to be finalized (although department officials say its not likely to change). Elementary school teachers new to the profession must have at least a bachelor's degree and pass a rigorous state test on basic elementary school curriculum. New middle and secondary school teachers must pass tests on the subject matter they will teach or have graduate degree, academic major or advanced certification in the subject.
What exactly the department means by "rigorous" remains unclear.
But what's certain is that the federal agency views many states' requirements as unacceptable.
A report by the department released in June called "Meeting The Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge" found that most states set minimum levels for their certification exams that are "shockingly low." Raising the bar is more difficult than it seems, many state education officials said because of widespread teacher shortages. Even with the low standards, many school districts are having problems filling all their teacher slots.
"It's challenging because in most states there aren't a lot of teachers in the pipeline," said Patty Sullivan of the Washington DC.-based Council of Chief State School Officers. "States have to fill their classrooms one way or another. If you're a superintendent and you post a job and no one answers, what are you supposed to do?"
"It's not that we don't want to have all of our teachers fully certified," said Andy Tompkin, commissioner of education in Kansas, where not all special education and middle school teachers are fully certified. "It's that we have some supply problems."
Still, if not this year, states will eventually have to make changes to their requirements that satisfy federal officials. California's experience is a reminder of that fact.
"My suspicion is that other states will look at what happened in California and try to be more subtle about any changes they make," says Kati Kaycock, director of the Education Trust, a non-profit organization that promotes education reform.