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Who's Really Fit To Teach? `No-Child' Report Questions Teacher Skills

Ohanian Comment: This article provides fuel to Connecticut's NCLB resistance fire. Good for Frahm. Good for the Courant.

By Robert A. Frahm

Thousands of Connecticut teachers, including some award-winning educators, could face new job reviews because they do not meet U.S. government standards as "highly qualified teachers," federal officials say.

The U.S. Department of Education has issued a new monitoring report that throws into question the qualifications of more than 13,000 teachers, about 30 percent of the state's public school teaching force, state officials say.

State education officials have vowed to challenge the report's conclusion that many teachers - especially older elementary teachers and those teaching social studies and special education classes - do not meet the criteria established under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The findings, to be outlined at a State Board of Education meeting this week, could mean that even some of the state's most highly regarded teachers would have to undergo job reviews or possibly even take tests or further training to demonstrate their competence.

"It would be a real slap in the face," said Diana Proto Avino, a 24-year veteran elementary teacher from the Pierson School in Clinton. "I would consider it a defamation of my professional character."

Teacher quality is a key element of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush's educational agenda.

The law, which calls for a broad expansion of school testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make adequate progress, requires states to ensure that all teachers are "highly qualified."

What that means is that all teachers - aside from having at least a bachelor's degree and state certification - must demonstrate knowledge in the academic subjects they teach.

States failing to meet that goal could risk millions of dollars in federal money.

Although the law says schools must comply by the end of this school year, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently extended the deadline until next year for states making good faith efforts.

Under the law, schools that receive federal Title I money must notify parents whose children are being taught by teachers who do not meet the standard.

Although states are allowed to establish their own methods for determining which teachers are highly qualified, a federal monitoring team that visited the state in January said Connecticut's method falls short in some areas.

State officials must file a reply to the report by April 28.

Across the nation, the federal government has been relatively flexible in allowing states to determine who is qualified to teach, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., an organization that has conducted national surveys on the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I'm surprised they're being strict with Connecticut," he said.

Federal officials said they have raised similar concerns about teachers' command of academic material in reviews of other states, too.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires teachers "to show that they know their subjects well enough to teach them," said Stephanie Babyak, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "It's not fair to teachers to ask them to teach subjects, like economics, that they do not know - and it's certainly not fair to students."

In the Connecticut report, federal monitors said that elementary teachers who were certified before 1988 - Avino falls in this category - may not have demonstrated competence to teach core academic subjects such as English, reading, math and science.

The state began testing all new teachers, starting in 1988, in subject-matter knowledge.

"To change the rules retroactively and impose new qualifications is just not playing fair," said Avino, who has won a state Celebration of Excellence award and the prestigious Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. "Shame on the federal government for having this narrow view of what makes a highly qualified teacher."

The federal monitors also said that a broad general test required of the state's social studies teachers may not be adequate to measure competence in four specific areas: history, geography, civics and economics.

Those teachers must establish credentials and demonstrate competence for each subject they teach, the monitors said.

Some educators, however, believe that would be impractical.

"No school will have the funds to hire specialists in economics, geography, political science and history to teach these different courses," said Caryn Stedman, head of the social studies department at the Metropolitan Learning Center, a public magnet school in Bloomfield. "If they enforce this, it means we'd have to eliminate so many of the electives we have."

Stedman herself might not be considered highly qualified under the federal guidelines, she said.

"I teach a course in emerging civil societies, which I wrote, [but] I don't have a degree in political science," she said. "For all intents and purposes, I don't have a history degree either, but I've been a history professor at Central [Connecticut State University] for 11 years." Stedman holds degrees in East Asian studies.

The federal monitors told state education officials that the teachers whose credentials are in question must undergo job reviews by the end of the school year to determine their qualifications.

The report also questioned whether the review procedures - created by individual school districts and approved by the state - are rigorous enough.

State Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg said it is possible some teachers might be required to take new tests or even to pass additional courses.

"It's not that we're against trying to make the skills of our teachers better and better," Sternberg said, "but I'm not sure taking a test or taking courses is what a veteran teacher needs."

The federal requirement to demonstrate qualifications in each of the various subjects they teach, such as math, science or history and language arts, could call into question the qualifications of nearly all of the state's special education teachers, state officials say.

"It is only going to exacerbate the shortage [of special education teachers] we already have," Sternberg said.

The additional requirements might also push some teachers to retire early, she said.

In Hartford, elementary teacher Deveria Berry said she is only a year away from retirement after teaching in the city for 34 years. She has won awards, including the national Milken Family Foundation honor, but would not meet the federal standard because she was certified prior to 1988.

"We're constantly being updated and trained," said Berry, who works at the Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School. "There's no way we can be considered not highly qualified, so that just seems ridiculous."

— Robert A. Frahm
Hartford Courant
2006-04-04


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