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'I feel like I'm cheating the kids' Politics teacher says he isn't qualified to lead a science class, but TUSD says that he is

Ohanian Comment: The district behavior here seems particularly odd. Surely there has to be more to the story? How can he possibly be considered highly qualified to teach earth science--by NCLB standards or anyone else's?

"Highly successful" probably means he doesn't send students to the office.

Sahuaro High School teacher Bruce Murchison brings a lot to the classroom: a political science degree, a master's in education, 13 years' teaching experience, 15 years in politics.

He's run campaigns, worked on campaigns and made an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate last November.

So, you'd think he'd be teaching government or social studies or even, say, history. But Murchison is teaching earth science, a subject in which he has virtually no background - and no desire to get any.

He's not alone. Figures reported to the federal government show about 8 percent of teachers in Tucson's largest school district also aren't qualified to teach their subject matter, a looming federal requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

"You talk to some of my colleagues, they'll say, 'He's a good teacher.' That's not the point," Murchison said. "It's that the students could be doing so much better with someone who has strong content knowledge."

Murchison is pounding the school pavement for change, for himself and other teachers caught in the wrong discipline. He recently addressed the Tucson Unified School District board and is calling on Sahuaro to send letters to parents notifying them he's not qualified.

Murchison and his boss, Principal Mary Metzger, disagree on whether he is "highly qualified" to teach science. That's the latest "educationese" for requirements in the No Children Left Behind Act, meaning teachers have bachelor's degrees, state teaching certificates in the subject they teach and 24 course credits, an advanced degree or a passing grade on a state test. All teachers must meet the criteria by June 2006.

Education officials say there's still confusion about the new federal requirements, approved by Congress in 2001.

Murchison, 37, finds the confusion annoying. He says he's not good at what he does. His classes: boring. He gives a short lecture, provides notes and uses worksheets to fill the rest of the period.

He admits he could have taken steps to be qualified in earth science, but refuses. After all the years and dollars he's spent to be qualified in political science, he doesn't have any interest in settling into earth science.

Even the question of whether teachers have an ethical obligation to make themselves qualified doesn't sway him. It's not his responsibility, he says, but the district's, to ensure teachers teach the right subjects.

"I really feel awkward. I feel like I'm cheating the kids," he says. "But I can't up and quit. I have a family to support."

Murchison also is perplexed about why school officials passed him up for openings in the social sciences considering his résumé, which boasts three years' teaching political science at Pima Community College and four years of world history at Pueblo High Magnet School.

"A decent teacher can teach almost anything, but if you don't have a background in something, you can't help them answer the real hard questions," he says.

The clock is ticking

Some districts are in a rush to meet the new requirements.

TUSD reported that in 2003-04, 92 percent of teachers were highly qualified. Already, officials predict it might be more.

In the next year, there will be reassignments, new hires and continuing education to move that mark to 100 percent, said Alyson Nielson, TUSD director of human resources.

But not for Murchison, who already has been assigned to earth science again even though he's not listed as highly qualified on the state report. Only 95 percent of TUSD civics and government teachers were highly qualified in the report.

Although there's confusion about the requirements, they're not open to interpretation, said Erika Wesley, education program specialist in the state Department of Education's Highly Qualified Professionals Unit.

The Arizona Department of Education recently reported to the federal government that 96 percent of Arizona teachers are highly qualified, but Wesley thinks those numbers are inflated because administrators and principals might still be confused about the requirements.

The confusion has state officials traveling Arizona, helping educators understand the requirements. Wesley will be in Tucson on Tuesday.

"Highly qualified"

Murchison's gone public with his problem and isn't afraid of the consequences.

"I really don't worry about what people think," he says. "I've been working as a teacher for 13 years. It would be very hard to get rid of me."

Ensuring teachers are qualified was part of Murchison's campaign platform when he ran for state Senate. The issue was inspired by his own experience.

Murchison agrees parents might think he'd be better off quitting, rather than acting like a maverick as he openly puts students' educations in danger. But he's not budging. Murchison says he would take a $9,000 pay cut if he left TUSD. With three college-bound children, he wants to stick it out.

With one class in earth science 15 years ago and a split minor in chemistry, he says he's not qualified according to the standards. With six years of experience teaching science, Principal Metzger says he is, despite the report to the state.

But one thing is sure: He certainly is qualified to teach government. He has $60,000 in student loans to prove it.

"I'll be honest. In the beginning, when I was younger, it was about me. It was a job, and I was happy to have it," he said. "Now it's about the kids. It's more than a job to me."

It's cases such as Murchison's that inspired the "highly qualified" provision in the No Child Left Behind Act, said Rene Islas, special assistant to U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Ray Simon.

"We really see the highly qualified provision as a protection for students and teachers," Islas said. " ... If they have training in a particular area, they will not be forced to teach something they don't have knowledge in."

Islas pointed to a Tennessee study that examined two groups of students testing at the same level. The groups were split - and the students with highly qualified teachers performed in the 83rd percentile on standardized tests compared with a 29th percentile score for those with less qualified teachers.

Late last month, the state cautiously stepped in at Sahuaro at Murchison's request, reminding Metzger that if a teacher isn't qualified, she must alert parents by sending a letter home.

Metzger says no letter is necessary because Murchison is qualified to teach science - and, she says, he's good at it.

Despite Murchison's warnings about his poor methods, Metzger said she's received compliments from students and parents on his skills.

"Mr. Murchison saying he's qualified (in political science) is all well and good," she said. "But he's been very successful in teaching earth science. All I can say is in every instance, we look for the very best people."

State intervention

The state does have a program for teachers who have been teaching for years but lack a degree in their subject to become "highly qualified." It's a rubric in which they earn points for things such as professional development. By that, Murchison barely qualifies to teach chemistry, a whole different animal than earth science, he and the state say.

Murchison is a "good earth science teacher," said freshman Ally Johnston, 14. She describes class the same way her teacher does: Lecture, notes, bookwork.

She sympathizes with his situation. But his way with students and his quick wit make up for his other shortcomings and keep students from boredom.

"He's very outspoken," she said. "He doesn't sugarcoat things, and he doesn't talk down to us."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said Murchison's situation doesn't make sense.

"A teacher must have deep knowledge to understand the area and be effective," Horne said. "In the past, we've had abuses. The school needs a football coach so they park them in the history class. "

In the next year, Horne said the state will audit the figures districts submitted to his office. Teachers not properly assigned will be moved, he said.

Meanwhile, Metzger, who will retire next month, stands behind Murchison's assignment. She prefers a hiring panel of teachers and parents to screen all candidates so the school's stakeholders are involved in the process. Murchison has been interviewed by those committees, but hasn't been chosen for a new position.

What is 'highly qualified'?

— By June 2006, all elementary and high school teachers need to be "highly qualified" under federal requirements. That means they:

— Have a bachelor's in their subject area.

— Are fully certified by the state.

— Earn a passing grade on a "rigorous" state test; earn 24 course credits; or hold an advanced degree.

'Highly qualified' in Arizona

— Arizona recently reported to federal officials how many teachers are "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind.

— Arizona: 96 percent

— Tucson Unified: 92 percent (Qualified: 2,905, Not: 242)

— Sunnyside: 94 percent (Qualified: 792, Not: 46)

— Amphitheater: 96 percent (Qualified: 977, Not: 36)

— Marana: 97 percent (Qualified: 650, Not: 18)

— Flowing Wells: 98 percent (Qualified: 349, Not: 7)

— Catalina Foothills: 100 percent (Qualified: 352, Not: 0)

'Highly qualified' in TUSD

— Percent of district's teachers qualified by subject:

— Economics: 100 percent

— English: 96 percent

— Civics/government: 95 percent

— History: 94 percent

— Science: 92 percent

— Arts: 92 percent

— Math: 87 percent

Source: Arizona Department of Education and school districts


— Should teachers be reassigned if they are not qualified to teach their subject matter?

— What responsibility do teachers hold to make sure they meet state or federal qualifications?

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— Daniel Scarpinato
Arizona Daily Star


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