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Testing 'highly qualified' teachers

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Do students taught by teachers considered "highly qualified" by the federal government do better on standardized tests? Some do, some don't, an analysis by the Herald News shows.

In 132 schools in Passaic County, the analysis compared results from the state Department of Education's report on "highly qualified" teachers released Tuesday with the standardized test scores and class size numbers released in early spring.

The largest disparity was in Passaic's Lincoln Middle School. About 71 percent of eighth-graders there failed to achieve proficiency on their state exam; 89.2 percent of their classes were taught by teachers who meet the federal definition of "highly qualified." At The Learning Center in Passaic, 96 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above proficient on their standardized test; 60.5 percent of classes in the school were taught by "highly qualified" teachers.

Local educators, officials and parents stressed that many factors - such as the socioeconomic background of students, class size, school environment, teacher qualifications - taken together determine how well students do in school.

"It's not all about the teacher," said Melissa Petraccoro, a sixth-grade science teacher in Paterson's School 18. "It has a lot to do with the family. Teachers can't take full credit, but they can't take full blame, either."

To be certified as "highly qualified," teachers must show expertise in the subject they teach. They may do that in a variety of ways, including passing an exam in the subject they teach, earning an undergraduate or graduate degree, accumulating 30 undergraduate credits or holding an advanced credential, such as National Board certification. Teachers must do this by 2006. If they don't, states can take action against districts to ensure that they help their teachers meet such standards.

The U.S. Department of Education would not comment on the Herald News' analysis.

But René Islas, a special assistant in the office of elementary and secondary education at the department, explained that the requirement for teachers to become "highly qualified" is based on research that teachers play the largest role in raising student achievement. The designation should be seen only as a minimum benchmark for teachers.

"What we know is that a teacher can't teach what he doesn't know," Islas said.

A principal reason for creating the requirement was to ensure that the poorest students would have teachers who know their subjects. Students in Title I schools, which have 40 percent or more of children in poverty, will receive a letter at home if their teachers are not "highly qualified." Islas said this knowledge will give disadvantaged parents power to advocate for their children - something that many middle and upper class parents already do.

But Michael Rice, the schools superintendent in Clifton, said he does not believe the federal definition is precise.

"It's a tremendously imperfect way to determine whether they are highly qualified to teach or not," he said.

Intelligent and capable people, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates, would not be "highly qualified" to teach by the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, Rice said, adding that some "highly qualified" teachers can be weak in front of a classroom.

Rice said he does not believe there would be a strong connection between percentage of courses taught by "highly qualified" teachers in particular schools and students' test scores, because the scores are dependent upon the confluence of so many facets of children's lives - inside and outside the school walls.

But William A. Firestone, director of the Center for Educational Policy Analysis at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, said such a comparison is misleading.

A student's socioeconomic background is the No. 1 thing that affects student achievement, Firestone said. Only after controlling for the number of students who receive free and reduced lunches could anyone see the effect of other factors, such as teacher quality and class size, on students' standardized test scores.

Carol Casperino, a parent of two children who will attend Clifton's School 12 next year, said scores on exams have a lot to do with a student's motivation, abilities and interests as well. She has been happy with all of the teachers who have taught her children. But her younger daughter, who will be in fifth grade, has performed better on standardized tests than her older daughter, who will start middle school this year - even though the two had three teachers in common.

"The teachers can only get out of the kids what the kids have," Casperino said.

Raymond Kwak, schools superintendent for the Manchester Regional District and Haledon Public School District, believes being a "highly qualified" teacher probably has little to do with classroom performance. But administrators in his districts must keep records on teachers' progress to make sure that the districts follow the law.

"It's continued paperwork without any other purpose than political expediency," Kwak said.

Reach Amy L. Kovac | (973) 569-7153 or kovac@northj'ersey.com and Jaci Smith at (973) 569-7163 |or smithja@northjersey.com.

— Amy L. Kovac and Jaci Smith
Herald News


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