State Educators Ask Not to Be Left Behind

While the Bush administration wants to make sure no child gets left behind, some state public educators say they may be forced to fire thousands of teachers who would no longer qualify for their jobs under new federal regulations, worsening a teacher shortage crisis.

Other school boards anticipate confusion over student performance assessments as states struggle to comply with President Bush’s massive education overhaul, dubbed the "No Child Left Behind Act," and signed into law in January.

"We are spending the greatest part of our energies in trying to understand the policy implications. I think that is happening across the nation," said Phil Spears, director of assessment for the California Department of Education.

For the first time ever, the federal government will impose strict standards on teacher qualifications and student testing in both the elementary and high school levels.

Under the new law, teachers must be fully licensed educators with degrees matching their topics of study. Teachers' aides must have at least two years of college.

The law also requires states to test their children in reading and math once a year between grades three and eight and once in high school by 2005, with extra science testing by 2007.

The federal government, which currently funds 7 percent of each state’s education budget on average, has promised $387 million to the states in fiscal year 2002 for the new testing requirements, which must be in place by the 2004-2005 school year.

"In the last 10 years, the federal government has not worked particularly hard at making sure school districts account for results. States will have to change what they are doing. They just have to cut through the initial inertia that has allowed them to overlook the traditional requirements," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform.

Officials say that they welcome the more ambitious bar, but they fear qualified teachers will be tossed out because their degrees do not match their curricula.

The rule could impact up to 3,500 teachers in Illinois today who could be disqualified from teaching because they are in classrooms under emergency waivers or may not be teaching in the area of study for which they received their degrees.

With 55,000 new teachers being sought in the next four years to accommodate an expected increase in enrollment and teacher retirements, state educators are worried the heads of the classrooms may be empty.

"Obviously we have to make a lot of changes in Illinois, and one of them is to make sure every teacher is 'highly qualified.' We don't know now how many would meet the [Federal] definition," said Lee Milner, a spokesman for the Illinois Board of Education. "We have had unfilled positions at the start of the year for the last two years."

California is faring no better.

"We have a vastly expanding population in California and we have an aging teaching population as well," noted Bob Anderson, an assessment administrator for the Department of Education. He said California is already looking for 100,000 new teachers, while at least 15 percent have temporary certification that might not stand up to federal scrutiny.

"There is a little scrambling to make sure these teachers and teacher aides get the background required," he said. "It's not that that's not our goal, but the timeline is challenging. That's a major burden."

Dave Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Government, said schools are also going to have trouble meeting requirements for student assessments. Only 15 to 18 states currently meet requirements laid out by the assessment plan, he said.

While the states will be able to choose their own local and state tests to fulfill the new mandate, they will be checked against a federal assessment test that will be given to a sample population of students in each state.

Schools that fail such tests after two years will qualify for additional funding to allow parents the choice to transport their children to other public schools in the district and take advantage of private tutorial programs.

It has yet to be seen how the federal government will determine which schools are failing because all state tests won't necessarily be the same.

"I think the secret of this bill, and I don’t know if it will be a controversy, won’t be the testing, but what you do with the results," said Griffith. "That’s where the rubber meets the road."