ColoradoTeachers Working to Make the Grade by '06
Students in Colorado's middle schools are the most likely to have teachers who fail to meet federal classroom standards, and some of the state's rural school districts are struggling with new rules they fear could strip them of their best teachers.
The reasons why can be found in President Bush's sweeping education reform act, dubbed No Child Left Behind. The law requires all U.S. teachers in core subjects to be "highly qualified."
Broadly defined in federal law and honed by each state, every public school teacher must meet the standard by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
In Colorado, that means each teacher must have a state teaching license and have some background in the classes he or she teaches.
Right now, only 71 percent of the state's middle school teachers are considered highly qualified, according to state Department of Education figures analyzed by the Rocky Mountain News and reinforced by interviews with public school officials throughout Colorado.
The percentage improves to 91 percent among high school teachers and peaks at 95 percent at the elementary school level.
Statewide, the News analysis revealed, 86 percent of Colorado's 39,206 kindergarten through 12th grade teachers meet the definition of highly qualified.
The percentage of teachers in Denver Public Schools who meet the federal standards resemble the state numbers: At the middle school level, highly qualified teachers instruct nearly 69 percent of the classes; at the high school level, 89 percent of teachers are highly qualified; and 94 percent of elementary teachers meet federal standards.
Robin Kane, executive director of human resources for DPS, said those numbers are a jump over last year's figures.
"I'm not distressed by these numbers," Kane added. "I'm very optimistic we'll have teachers where they need to be by 2006."
To meet that goal teachers in Denver, and across the state, are pulling out their college transcripts and submitting them to their principals to verify they meet the requirements.
Those who do not are sitting down for one-on-one talks to map out how they'll do so. The plans typically involve taking more college classes, passing a state test in the subject they're teaching or transferring to a job where their credentials enable them to meet the definition of highly qualified.
"We had one teacher who was in here crying because she didn't think she had enough credits in science," said Larry Romine, who handles personnel services for the Lamar School District in Prowers County. "Fortunately, we were able to work that one out. She's fine now."
Already, the Denver and Douglas County school districts are refusing to transfer teachers to positions for which they don't meet the highly qualified definition.
"Internally, we're trying to stop it up front," said Bill Hodges, Douglas County's assistant superintendent for human resources. "So if you're a math teacher and want to be an English teacher, unless you're highly qualified, we are not going to allow you to teach English. We don't want to create another unqualified teacher."
Not all school districts have that luxury, though. In rural schools, where principals already struggle to fill many jobs, the highly qualified definition only makes it tougher.
A rural problem
At Wiley Consolidated Schools in southeastern Colorado, Ruth Ann Cullen lives in constant fear that one of her high school teachers will leave for another job.
With only 30 teachers in a district of 300 students, even one lost teacher can be a major problem. Getting state and federal policymakers to understand that is another issue.
"We were asking some people from the (Colorado Department of Education) about recruiting teachers, and they treated it like, 'No big deal,' " said Cullen. "For them, it was 'Well, you bring in your top candidates, watch them in the classroom, pick the best and ask them to come out again.'
"I was like, do you understand the situation we're facing? We're lucky if we get one person per job opening."
Bush White, who's overseeing the federal requirement for the Colorado Department of Education, said he's heard the concerns.
"I've heard a lot about the rural issue," said White, a former principal in rural Colorado. "It is sometimes really hard to get teachers who are willing to teach in a rural setting."
Rural districts were given a major break last month when the U.S. Department of Education loosened rules on the highly qualified requirement in rural areas.
The new rules now allow rural teachers to spend up to three years in a district before becoming highly qualified. More leeway also is given to teachers whose schools are so small that they must teach several subjects.
While the change could be a godsend to many small districts in Colorado, school officials still worry whether all of their teachers will ever become highly qualified.
The 90-student Agate School District in Elbert County is finding ways to get its two non-highly qualified teachers enough college credits to continue teaching, but Superintendent Wendy Dunaway said she would defy the state if she were ordered to fire them.
"They're good and the children learn," said Dunaway, who is in her third year heading the district of 17 teachers. "Why would we want to get rid of someone like that?"
But while federal officials have given rural schools some extra breathing room, it's unclear if such leniency will be extended to a potentially bigger problem - middle schools.
The middle school issue
If given the choice between teaching or doing anything else, Bob Heist would spend his life in the classroom. He finds that ironic, though, considering that he might need to find a new job.
By all accounts, the Lamar Middle School algebra teacher is considered one of the school's best. He's funny and engaging with students. His students consistently perform well on standardized tests.
But Heist, 46 - a former social studies teacher who found his calling helping seventh- and eighth-grade students figure out the value of X - is not qualified under the federal law to be in his classroom.
Heist isn't alone. He's one of about 12 teachers in the Lamar district who fail to meet federal standards.
"Now what do I do?" asked Heist, who has been at the district 20 years. "And what will the district do?"
Teachers such as Heist are particularly affected by No Child Left Behind because Colorado doesn't have a license specifically for them. Instead, the state lumps them in with elementary teachers and issues them an endorsement for grades K-8.
But while elementary teachers cover all subjects, middle school teachers tackle specific topics such as science or math. And while Colorado has never required those teachers to get an endorsement in that specific content, the federal law now says they must to be considered highly qualified.
Adding to the middle school issue is the popularity of what's known as "the middle school concept," designed to foster relationships and boost student achievement in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
The concept typically calls for team-teaching, where one teacher might handle math and science and the other takes English and social studies. The idea is to have two teachers working closely together with the same group of students. But the teachers involved do not always have college majors or state endorsements in all of the subjects they teach.
In Denver, where the middle school concept is used, Kane said some principals are contemplating scrapping the concept and returning to more traditional class schedules.
"If they're going to be required to have teachers highly qualified, it may not be possible to continue with it," Kane said.
Betty Haight, in her seventh year of teaching middle school math and science in Agate, says she can't bear the thought of not teaching her science classes. She already meets the requirement in math but falls short in science.
Getting the additional college credits in science will be a challenge. The nearest college is in Denver, a 140-mile round trip.
Heist, the Lamar teacher, said he would take a state math test to get his needed endorsement, rather than driving to school in Pueblo. But he said the test, typically taken by high school teachers, includes trigonometry and calculus, something he would never use in class.
And if he fails after several attempts?
"I would hope the district couldn't just kick me out," Heist said.
It's not yet clear how the federal government will enforce the highly qualified definition - or what will happen to teachers found out of compliance.
"I don't know if the federal government has a highly qualified police force out there or not," joked Ron Pike, head of human resources for Adams 14 School District in Commerce City. "Let's say we can't find a science teacher, we have no applicants. . . . What happens? The only thing I can assume the government can do is withhold federal funds."
Pike is not particularly worried about his district, though, where 92 percent of teachers meet the federal definition.
"We will see this number improve next year greatly," he said. "We're just focusing more on it and making sure it happens . . . I think it's a great idea. Who can argue with wanting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom?"
Not everyone agrees that Colorado's definition will guarantee what it promises.
David Haselkorn, former president of Massachusetts-based Recruiting New Teachers Inc., said the state's definition emphasizes knowledge of subject over knowledge of teaching.
"The term 'highly qualified' has sort of morphed into this definition of anybody with a B.A. degree who can pass a subject-matter test, "with a kiss and a promise with respect to pedagogy," Haselkorn said.
At Cole Middle School in northeast Denver, only one of 28 classroom teachers does not meet the highly qualified definition. And that teacher, said Principal Nicole Veltze, "is my best teacher."
This year, that teacher never would have been sent to Cole to apply. Cole is a high-poverty school receiving federal Title I dollars and such schools already are prohibited by federal law from hiring teachers who are not highly qualified.
Veltze said the law is a "Catch-22."
"We will probably find some really good teachers who are stronger in their content area," she said. "But I also believe we may be missing some fabulous people who have that ability in the art of teaching who will not cross our plate because they're screened out because they're not highly qualified."
Teachers who ultimately fail to meet the requirements may lose their jobs.
"We're saying if you're not going to be compliant by July of '06," said Hodges in Douglas County, "we're going to have to find someone to take your place."
Nancy Mitchell And Robert Sanchez
Rocky Mountain News
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