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Teachers Irked by Status Check

BRATTLEBORO -- Deborah Abbott, a fourth-grade teacher at Academy School, said she knew the letter was on its way. A few colleagues received the notice from the Vermont Department of Education about their status concerning a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, and Abbott, who has been teaching for 11 years and holds two master's degrees, heard that even the most-qualified teachers were being contacted.

"This is ridiculous," was her first reaction. "It is a waste of time and money. But this law is so misdirected I wasn't surprised."

Abbott is one of approximately 2,800 teachers in Vermont being asked to supply information about their qualifications to the state Department of Education.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires educators to be "highly qualified teachers." Letters went out last week to those who need to update their paperwork, or in some cases, take classes to meet the standards.

The department mailed nearly 8,000 letters earlier in the year to all of the core teachers in the state; 2,800 -- about 25 percent of the state's teachers -- were re-contacted after the state was unable to determine if they met the requirements.

In addition, English-as-a-Second-Language teachers, and teachers of physical education and technical subjects are expected to receive similar letters on Feb. 22.

According to the federal law, all public school teachers of core academic subjects must meet the requirements by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Teachers must hold at least a bachelor's degree and a license, and must prove adequate knowledge in their core academic subjects.

Those in the upper grades who teach specialized subjects must prove knowledge in their core subject. But elementary teachers, who often teach math, science, English, and social studies, must prove sufficient knowledge in all of those areas. Elementary teachers must have completed at least one college course or professional development activity in each of the four academic subjects.

If teachers need to take required tests, they are responsible for the cost, according to a department spokeswoman.

Abbott agrees with the concept, and said the state should have the necessary paperwork on hand.

"But having a transcript or taking a course really doesn't prove anything," she said. "Content is easy to learn. A lot of teaching is learned on the job."

The department has been assessing the data of its teachers since the spring, said state Education Commissioner Richard Cate. The letters are merely the first step in updating the department's files.

Cate said he expects only a small percentage of the state's teachers to fall short of the federal requirements.

No Child Left Behind allows each state to create its own standard of evaluation. Cate, who accepted the position in November 2003, said he did not change Vermont's requirements.

All of the criteria the state is gathering has been required in the past, he said, and many who received the letters last week are teachers with years of experience who were hired before the state asked for the documentation.

"I feel badly. We have gotten a lot of calls and people are concerned," Cate said. "But this needed to occur. We need to demonstrate to the federal government and to the people of Vermont that our teachers are qualified."

The paperwork must be back at the department by early March, Cate said. Then representatives from the Department of Education will work with the teachers over the next 18 months to help them take the necessary tests and classes.

"This is not an effort to drive out good teachers," Cate said. "I fully expect most of Vermont's teachers to meet the standards."

If teachers do not meet the requirements by the 2006 school year, superintendents will be told and notices will be sent to parents stating that the teachers have not met the federal standard.

"This is a bureaucratic paper-chase and a nightmare," said Angelo Dorta, president of Vermont-National Education Association, a 10,000-member teacher's union.

The Vermont Department of Education and State Board of Education could have told the federal government that the state's teachers met the standards, Dorta said, instead of asking them to fill out the forms and track down their records.

The letters that came last week "offered no guidance," Dorta said, and teachers throughout the state now have one more responsibility on their very full plates.

He said the teachers' responses have ranged from confusion to outrage. Montpelier's March 12 deadline leaves just six weeks for the teachers to track down their missing files, he pointed out.

"There is a strong feeling of insult. People feel demeaned," said Dorta.

Abbott said the letters have shaken up some of the teachers she works with.

Jill Guest, spokesperson for the Vermont Department of Education, said her department has been fielding calls about the letters. She admits that the notices caused confusion, and a Web site linked from the state Department of Education home page ( www.state.vt.us/educ ) seeks to help teachers make sense of the requirements.

"This came out of the blue. It could have been handled much better," Abbott said. "Teachers often come home at the end of the day questioning the decisions we made and the things we maybe could have done differently. You judge yourself by a high standard, and then when you get a letter like this it just hits you in all the vulnerable places."

— Howard Weiss-Tisman
Brattleboro Reformer


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