States are running out of time to figure out how they're going to meet new federal education requirements, and to date, they are far from being in compliance.
The No Child Left Behind Act signed into law by President Bush last year is the administration's main initiative to hold schools more accountable for their performances and to improve student test scores.
It provides $15 billion to states to implement the law and authorizes $10.4 billion to help 14 million disadvantaged kids close the achievement gap separating them from their peers. A centerpiece of the proposal is to encourage states to recruit and retain skilled teachers.
But a study released by Education Week last week shows that states only get a "C" average in their efforts to meet these new standards, and the authors of the report say states have a long way to go.
"Studies show that when it comes to students' achievement, effective teachers are more important than any other school ingredient," said Virginia Edwards, editor of Education Week. "If states hope to close the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students and those from rich and poor families, they must first close the gap in access to skilled teachers."
The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all teachers in core subjects be "highly qualified" in subjects they teach by the end of the 2005-06 school year. This means they have to be fully licensed and have an academic major or its equivalent, or must pass a test.
So far, only Kentucky bars assigning teachers to classes for which they are not certified, the study found. Ten additional states either limit the number of unqualified teachers in a school or district or impose accreditation penalties on districts that hire too many out-of-field teachers.
Twenty-two states require that school report cards include information about teacher characteristics.
Rural schools may have even more trouble complying with the teacher requirement. Not only is it often harder to recruit good teachers there but there are fewer of them to shift around to different classrooms.
"My guess is, you'll see a fair amount of creativity in getting teachers to a certain level of expertise," said Kathy Christie, vice president for the Education Commission of States Clearinghouse in Denver, Colo.
The study found that while 24 states provide college scholarships, loans or other tuition assistance to future teachers, only seven of them target such programs at candidates who want to work in high-need schools. Five states give signing bonuses for teachers, but only California and Massachusetts gear the bonuses to teachers willing to work at such schools.
"Recruiting good teachers is always a challenge," Christie said.
The study also found that 19 states and D.C. now test English and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, which the law requires be done by 2005-06.
Christie said one of the key challenges schools face is having enough money to establish an electronic student tracking system to manage performance data.
While some schools fret over whether they can live up to the new standards, many education experts see the new federal law as a good challenge to public schools to shape up or else.
"I actually see it more as an opportunity," said Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association, which oversees 51 charter schools in the state.
Phillips said school districts are under pressure to perform and if they fail, charter schools — schools operating on five-year licenses funded with public money, but held to a higher level of accountability than traditional public schools — are there to fill in the gaps.
States have until Jan. 31 to submit preliminary plans on how they will comply with guidelines outlined in the NCLB.
So far, five states have had their plans approved by the Education Department. Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio were identified by Bush for their creativity and proactive submissions.
"Indiana began work on accountability measures long before the federal government took up the effort, and it's gratifying to have our work recognized," Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon said in a statement.
Among some of the plans, Massachusetts has created a proficiency index to determine if schools are making "adequate yearly progress" in student learning. Parents of children that chronically fail this litmus test can transfer their kids to other schools or receive free services to aid students' education. Schools that continuously fail the progress test face serious sanctions, including state takeover.
"Accountability is the linchpin of school improvement and, indeed, the central tenet of NCLB," Education Secretary Roderick Paige said. "We will be firm but fair in guiding this bipartisan effort to raise student achievement and close the achievement gap."