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Montana's Top Teacher Not Good Enough

Jon Runnalls won Montana's "Teacher of the Year" award last year. But even though he has been teaching science to middle schoolers for nearly three decades, he fails to meet the Bush administration's definition of a highly qualified teacher.

His problem -- a common one among middle school teachers, particularly in rural areas -- is that he teaches classes in several different subjects. While he has a strong background in general science, he does not have formal qualifications in chemistry, biology and physics, as required by the No Child Left Behind legislation.

When No Child Left Behind was signed into law by President Bush in 2002 with widespread bipartisan support, it promised to put a highly qualified teacher in every classroom in the country by the end of the 2005-06 school year. The last few months have included an increasingly heated debate over teacher quality and the real-world impact of the most ambitious educational reforms in more than a generation.

Faced with an outcry by educators and state legislators over the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the Department of Education has been looking for ways to soften some of its provisions. On Monday, Secretary of Education Roderick R. Paige will announce new, more flexible guidelines on what constitutes a highly qualified teacher.

Some educators argue that the law is exacerbating a shortage of good teachers, particularly in schools that receive federal subsidies because they cater to large numbers of disadvantaged students. Under No Child Left Behind, such schools are already required to hire only highly qualified teachers. The additional paperwork, some principals say, compounds an already complicated recruiting challenge.

"It limits the pool of applicants and creates a lot of headaches," said Monica Smith-Woofter, principal of Chaloner Middle School in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., who says she is looking for more than "paper qualifications" from teachers. "When I judge a teacher, I go into their classroom and see if they can engage the students, teach them the subject matter and help them solve problems in the real world. You can't put those things on paper."

"It seems like every year I teach, the state comes up with something else I have to do," said Tabitha King, who teaches eighth-grade math and science at Chaloner, but is only highly qualified in math. "You get tired of jumping these hurdles every year."

Federal officials say the No Child Left Behind requirements on teacher certification are much less rigid than the critics suggest. A teacher is considered fully qualified if he or she holds a bachelor's degree in the subject, or has passed an equivalency test known as Praxis. Veteran teachers can also demonstrate their competence by presenting a portfolio of their work to state examiners.

There are wide discrepancies among states over how they interpret the highly qualified teacher provisions of No Child Left Behind. In submissions last year to the Department of Education, Arkansas claimed that more than 97 percent of classrooms had highly qualified teachers. Maryland reported 46 percent, and Alaska 16 percent.

Some states, such as North Carolina, have adopted alternative certification routes for veteran teachers. Others, such as Montana, say there is not enough money in the state budget for establishing a new certification system.

"The whole thing is a can of worms," said Runnalls, who teaches at Helena Middle School. "In my school, we are devoting enormous time and energy to doing the paperwork required by No Child Left Behind, which is taking time away from educating students."

The alternative to the yet-to-be-developed state certification plan, Runnalls said, is returning to college to pick up more science degrees, a solution that does not appeal to him.

According to Ray Simon, assistant secretary for primary and secondary education, there is a great deal of misinformation about teacher qualification requirements in the law. He said there are a lot of things states such as Montana can do to provide teachers such as Runnalls with professional development opportunities, short of sending them back to school.

In an attempt to encourage people to enter the teaching profession, the Department of Education is investing $35 million in an alternative certification program that would bypass traditional teachers' colleges. So far, two states -- Idaho and Pennsylvania -- have agreed to participate in the program, which allows anyone with a bachelor's degree to earn a teaching certificate for $500 after taking a series of online tests.

Controversy has surrounded the program, known as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, almost from its inception. Teachers' unions and liberal advocacy groups have charged that much of the money to set up the American Board was funneled through a conservative group called Education Leaders Council, which is allied with the Bush administration.

— Michael Dobbs
Montana's Top Teacher Not Good Enough


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