Pennsylvania Moves to Waive Some Teacher Tests
Ohanian Comment: Although I don't believe one test should decide a teacher's "qualification," I do see this as a complex issue. Certainly it's not enough just to know Grade 6 math, say, to teach it. Back in the early 90ies, when teachers could still work at improving their practice, primary grade math teachers across the country wanted to toss traditional math books and teach hands-on, exploratory math in the constructivist vein. One of the ways they prepared themselves to do this was to enroll in college algebra and geometry courses. I wrote about these remarkable teachers in Garbage Pizza, Patchwork Quilts, and Math Magic.
The Pennsylvania Board of Education took the first step yesterday toward eliminating the requirement that some middle and high school teachers pass content tests in their subjects in order to be considered "highly qualified" under federal law.
Officials say the action - "fast-tracked" through the board without public input - will not weaken standards, but will give experienced teachers a chance to demonstrate expertise in other ways.
Critics denounced the move as a watering-down of standards that will allow teachers who are less than highly qualified to stay in the classroom.
The regulations affect seventh- and eighth-grade teachers with elementary, or general, certifications who teach math, science, English and social studies. In Philadelphia, more than half the middle school teachers who took the subject-matter Praxis tests during the last year did not pass them. Statewide, nearly one-quarter failed. Though the Philadelphia School District made its results public, the state declined to release district-by-district results.
The changes also affect special education, English as a second language, and alternative school teachers with students in self-contained settings. They do not affect new teachers.
Under the new rules, teachers can receive a three-year "bridge certification," based on criteria that include satisfactory teaching experience, writing articles in journals, attending professional development sessions, taking college courses in the subject, teaching college courses in the subject, winning teaching awards, and tutoring.
"Bridge certification is not a dumbing down," said board member Larry A. Wittig, chairman of the board's No Child Left Behind subcommittee. "It's giving greater opportunity to a greater number of people... it's a very comprehensive approach." He added that the final standard that will be approved in November "may not be exactly the standard you see today."
After three years, teachers can get the "highly qualified" designation as well as certification in the subject if they meet unspecified higher standards under the same criteria, except for the tutoring.
"We're trying to honor existing teachers in the profession," state Education Secretary Vicki Phillips said. "We're offering an alternative acceptable to the feds, but at a level of rigor we believe will keep 'highly qualified' and 'fully certified' synonymous."
The testing requirement has rankled teachers and their unions, who feel that the federal No Child Left Behind law is unfair to classroom veterans and demeans the certification process. It is possible to be fully certified but not "highly qualified" under the law because it emphasizes content knowledge and traditional certification emphasizes teaching methods.
No Child Left Behind requires all students to have a "highly qualified" teacher by the 2005-06 school year and all students to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math by 2014. It allows states to offer ways besides certification for teachers to show content expertise, and with yesterday's action Pennsylvania is among the last to do so.
The only members of the public to speak in favor of the new regulations were representatives of the teacher unions, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers. The only opponent was Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center, who said the board resolution was so vague it was difficult to tell exactly what a teacher must do to be "highly qualified" and worried that standards were being lowered for those with the most vulnerable students.
Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit in Washington that seeks to raise academic achievement, said in a telephone interview that she was disappointed.
"This is a step backwards, and it's sad. It's what happens when the politics of education are so dominated by adult interest," she said.
Phillips, who will leave in August to become schools superintendent in Portland, Ore., and members of the state board disagreed. Phillips noted that a teacher's years of experience will not count for more than 50 percent of the points needed to get the "highly qualified" designation. For tutoring to count toward the "bridge," there will have to be evidence that students benefited.
Phillips said that when the rules are final, the state will still have rigorous standards.
Tomas Hanna, Philadelphia's director of teacher recruitment, said that although the district still would like all its teachers to pass the Praxis test, "we welcome the flexibility.
"Ultimately, the job for us is to ensure that there's a certified teacher in every classroom," Hanna said.
City teachers' views vary.
"I really think teachers should be able to pass the test," said Michael Geraci, a math teacher at Penn Treaty Middle School who got a perfect score. "People should know their content. Yes, teaching is an art - but it would be nice if you had the art of teaching with your content knowledge."
But Lisa Haver, a social studies and science teacher at Harding Middle School, supported the board's decision. Haver, who taught sixth-grade math for several years before switching to other subjects, failed the math test by 3 points.
Haver said the test was at high school level and "not really testing what you're doing."
State board member Jim Barker, superintendent of schools in Erie, said the new rules would offer places that have trouble finding content-certified teachers the chance to put "experienced teachers in front of students."
Barker added that it was a "legitimate question" to wonder whether someone who can't pass the Praxis test in a subject is qualified to teach it. But, he said, "you have to balance that with putting someone with even less demonstrated capability... in the classroom."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES