Highly qualified data

NCLB requires all states, at the end of the current school year, to prove that their teachers in charge of academic classes are "highly qualified." In an era of accountability, it's a reasonable request. After all, we ask students to be proficient in their subjects. Shouldn't we ask the same of their teachers

States have had four years to prepare for this deadline-are they ready?

They say yes. During the 2003-2004 school year, the latest for which data are available, 31 of 47 states reporting to the Department of Education claimed that at least 90 percent of their elementary and secondary classes were taught by highly qualified teachers. As it turns out, however, the numbers most states reported were bogus.

To be sure, the law required states to make major changes. No longer would teacher certification be enough; all teachers would also have to demonstrate their subject matter competence. For new teachers, this meant passing a test or possessing a major in their subject. For veteran teachers, it meant wading through a portfolio assessment system (known as HOUSSE) to show their stuff. Setting up the systems to track all of this was no small challenge for the states.

But that's no excuse for what federal officials learned while making onsite visits to see how they were faring. Their findings, revealed in 40 written compliance reports, are stunning. Teachers were classified as highly qualified based on criteria that did not match federal requirements. Some long-time teachers, for example, were treated as highly qualified simply because of their seniority. Whole categories of instructors, notably special education teachers, were omitted. And every state considered middle and high school history teachers highly qualified if they were licensed in the field of social studies rather than in history itself, as the law demands.

The three states reporting the highest percentage of highly qualified teachers were, not surprisingly, among the worst offenders. For example, Washington state claimed that 99 percent of all its teachers were highly qualified. But when Education Department monitors showed up in May 2005, they quickly saw why that figure was so high. The state incorrectly recognized as highly qualified any teacher with an elementary or special education degree.

Connecticut was reviewed in January 2006. The Constitution State began requiring subject-matter tests of all elementary teachers in 1988, so theoretically, every teacher hired in elementary education on or after that date who also held full state certification met the federal standard. But the state also counted, incorrectly, all elementary teachers hired prior to 1988 as highly qualified. Furthermore, federal officials found that Connecticut had not yet collected teacher data from all of its 195 districts and that it did not have a statewide database that included information about its highly qualified teachers. Instead, it had a licensure and certification database from which state officials concluded that 99 percent of core academic classes were being taught by highly qualified teachers. But with few exceptions, the state included all fully certified teachers in that percentage, whether or not they'd demonstrated subject matter competence.

During the Minnesota review in November 2005, federal officials found that the Land of 10,000 Lakes considered highly qualified all elementary teachers licensed prior to 2001, even if they had not demonstrated subject matter competency. In addition, Minnesota did not require teachers hired after the first day of the 2002-2003 school year to take a rigorous subject-matter test. The state's report that 99 percent of its teachers were highly qualified was unquestionably wrong.

It is entirely possible that Washington, Connecticut, Minnesota, and the other states that reported bogus numbers will ultimately prove to the Education Department that their teachers meet the federal requirements for highly certified. But we can't count on their word alone. They've been consciously providing misleading data to the public for years.

Because most states have not met the highly qualified teachers mandate, Secretary Margaret Spellings announced last October that they might be given an extra year if they started to show good faith in meeting federal requirements. And in a March 21, 2006, letter, the Education Department announced it would ask most states to submit a revised plan for getting all of their teachers highly qualified. States must also complete a review of their highly qualified designations by the end of the present school year, and put special emphasis on closing the "teacher quality gap" between rich and poor schools.

The flexibility is understandable on the federal government's end. Clearly it waited too long before investigating lofty state claims; now it has no choice but to be patient. Also, securing high quality teachers-especially in high poverty, high minority schools-is difficult. But it's essential if we're to improve student academic achievement.

States ought to be ashamed for reporting such inflated statistics. Because of their dishonesty, educators now have but one year to achieve the highly qualified designation, a fact that will surely mean good teachers who, with appropriate warning, could have met the requirements will fall by the wayside. Of course, No Child Left Behind itself will take the blame. But this time there's no doubt that it's the states who have shirked their responsibilities-not only to students, but to teachers as well.

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