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Teacher Standards Ease Amid Reforms

A landmark federal law designed to raise standards for teachers may be having the opposite effect, as Illinois and at least a dozen other states have rolled back teacher licensing requirements.

A little-noticed Illinois law, signed this summer, eliminated mandatory exams for most out-of-state teachers coming here and weakened requirements for novice teachers trying to upgrade their licenses.

At least a half-dozen other states have relaxed rules for out-of-state teachers in the last year. Since 2002 Virginia, Maryland and New Hampshire have made it easier for teachers to pass a basic-skills test. Pennsylvania gave up on requiring a new test for middle school teachers when too many of them flunked.

Education officials say they are simply reducing red tape and addressing teacher shortages. In some states, including Illinois, officials insist standards have not been lowered, despite the reduced requirements.

But as pressure bears down from the federal government to put a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom--a mandate of the landmark No Child Left Behind reforms--the relaxed rules are making it easier for states to meet the letter of the law, if not always the spirit.

Along with the better known provisions of No Child Left Behind related to testing and student choice, the federal legislation requires all English, math, science and other core academic teachers to be "highly qualified" by spring 2006.

But the law left it up to states to set the standards for who is highly qualified, using their own certification processes.

"I think what we're seeing is the fallout of No Child Left Behind, where the pressure is on to have a highly qualified teacher," said Roy Einreinhofer, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. "Right now it is a matter of getting a warm body that has passed every standard into the classroom."

The federal law says that teachers must hold a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution, be fully certified and demonstrate competency in subject areas through rigorous testing or extensive college work.

By that standard, schools have a long way to go. A rough estimate by the U.S. Department of Education last year showed only 54 percent of the nation's middle and high school teachers were highly qualified during the 1999-2000 school year, the last for which nationwide data were available.

The Illinois State Board of Education last year determined that 76 percent of teachers in Illinois were highly qualified. That success was amplified by the fact that Illinois had created some of the more stringent requirements for teacher certification in recent years.

Illinois' standards high

In 2001 the state raised standards on its basic-skills test, requiring teachers to achieve a college-sophomore level composite score to pass the test. Most basic-skills tests in other states are at the 10th- or 11th-grade level.

Because Illinois has higher standards, it required out-of-state teachers to take the basic-skills test here, even if they had passed tests in their state.

But the law that took effect July 1 eliminates the basic-skills test requirement for the vast majority of out-of-state teachers, as well as a subject-area testing requirement.

The change was nestled inside a bill described as "teacher insurance legislation" when Gov. Rod Blagojevich quietly signed it at the end of June.

Also included in the bill were other changes to teacher certification programs that were quietly negotiated this spring by state schools Supt. Robert Schiller, key lawmakers, the state's teacher unions and several other groups.

The new law eases the requirements new teachers must complete by their fourth year. One of the options for a "standard certificate" was attaining a master's degree; now a teacher can meet that requirement with 12 semester-hours of graduate study. Another option, taking part in a two-year mentoring program, was replaced with one year of mentoring by a veteran teacher, at least until 2007.

Schiller acknowledged that a two-year mentoring program would be better, but districts can't afford it.

"The state has not ponied up any money for the mentoring and that's the reality," he said.

Overall, however, Schiller said he did not consider the new law a lowering of standards.

Pennsylvania is another state struggling to find the right balance between establishing high standards and getting enough teachers certified.

Pennsylvania had been praised by the federal government for raising standards for college-level teacher training in 1999. And in 2002, state officials adopted the federal call for rigorous testing, requiring most middle school teachers to demonstrate expertise in their subject areas. But after many teachers failed, including about half of Philadelphia's 7th- and 8th-grade teachers, state education officials designed a program that will allow teachers to be considered highly qualified this fall without taking a test.

That made the teachers happy, said Kevin Corcoran, who oversees certification for the Pennsylvania Education Department.

"They've been teaching for so long that they feel that it's sort of an insult to require them to take a test," he said.

Still, Philadelphia officials under former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas say they want teachers to continue taking the test "because folks are now thinking this is watering down the requirements," said Tomas Hanna, the city's chief teacher recruiter.

Similarly, federal officials applauded Virginia for setting the highest standard in the country for passing the required Praxis basic-skills tests in reading, writing and math.

But now the state is considering lowering the passing score for those tests, in part because of teacher complaints, said Thomas Elliott, who oversees Virginia teacher licensing.

Since April 2002, Virginia has allowed teachers to pass the tests with a "composite" score across all three exams rather than requiring a passing score for each test. The scoring method can be the difference between passing and flunking for teachers who are weak in a particular subject.

Maryland started using the composite method in July 2002. New Hampshire, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, West Virginia and Missouri reduced the requirements for teachers moving from out of state. And while changes in Illinois teacher certification went almost unnoticed, North Carolina's decision in January to eliminate subject-area testing for many out-of-state teachers sparked public controversy.

A top federal education official was reluctant to judge the changes states are making.

The state actions "might be a way to make the standards more fair," said Ray Simon, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. "We don't want standards lowered, but we do want fair standards and we want the best teacher in front of every child in the United States."

Risk of lowering bar

But a 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Education warned, "There is a risk, though, that states could meet the letter of the No Child Left Behind Act and keep their academic standards for future teachers quite low."

"Some might even be tempted to lower the academic bar (if that is possible) out of fear of impending teacher shortages," the report continued. "This would be an enormous mistake, with disastrous consequences for children."

Some state certification officials say No Child Left Behind is partly to blame for weakened standards because its requirements are not always as strict as state rules.

For example, West Virginia officials are reconsidering a requirement that reading teachers working mostly with poor children attain a master's degree. The federal law would allow those teachers to be called highly qualified with a bachelor's degree, and lawmakers are loath to impose any additional requirements that would cost the state extra money.

No Child Left Behind also encourages alternate routes to licensing that allow professionals with special expertise -- such as chemists or physicists -- to move into the classroom.

But a new online certification program paid for in part by the U.S. Department of Education has alarmed some educators.

The American Board for Certification Excellence in Washington gives "Passport to Teaching" certification to candidates who pay $500, pass the computer exam, hold a bachelor's degree and pass a criminal background check.

The program would circumvent requirements for teacher training and classroom experience and is designed for nationwide recognition without regard to states' individual requirements.

"That's considered, among people in our profession, pretty shaky," said Mike Lucas, director of educator preparation at the Missouri Department of Education.

Officials in Pennsylvania, Idaho and Florida have approved use of the computer exam, and New Hampshire education officials voted in June to accept it as well.

Randy Thompson, a former Idaho education official who recently joined the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence as a vice president, said the group's testing is rigorous. He said criticism of the program is coming from "existing groups who have a vested interest in the certification process they control."

— Diane Rado
Chicago Tribune


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