Legislation Puts Teachers' Qualifications to Test

By Linda Perlstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2003

One in a series of occasional articles on the people affected by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Beth Phillips is well stocked when it comes to academic degrees. The middle school reading and English teacher has a bachelor's from the University of Michigan in general studies, including courses in Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew literature, and a master's in special education from Syracuse University.

She went back to college to get certified to teach general K-8 education, and accumulated 65 graduate credits beyond that.

Her work evaluations over 11 years have been excellent. Many parents are enthusiastic when they hear she's been assigned to teach their children, and her principal at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, Michael Doran, appreciates her talent, dedication and breadth of knowledge.

Yet Phillips, 36, is in jeopardy of not meeting the "highly qualified" teacher requirement in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, along with thousands of others who hold education degrees but did not major in the academic subjects they teach.

Public school teachers who don't have at least a bachelor's degree in their content specialty -- such as math, science, English or history -- have until the end of the 2005-06 school year to demonstrate their mastery of it, no matter how long they have been teaching.

Each state will set its standards, which may include having teachers pass a test, take additional college courses or show how their professional accomplishments are proof of specialized knowledge. Duration of a teaching career may be considered a factor, though not the only one.

The law's requirement is not seen as much of an obstacle for high school teachers, who have taken significant course work in their academic areas as a prerequisite for certification, or for new teachers, who take subject-matter tests upon entering the profession. But proving content knowledge will be a more complicated affair for the many veteran middle school teachers with elementary (K-8) certification.

Middle school teachers generally are certified as elementary or high school teachers. In Maryland, 28 percent, or 3,280, of middle school teachers have elementary certification; many of those do not have additional majors. For the most part, "these are people who have been teaching many, many years and have been doing a wonderful job with our children," said Joann Ericson, Maryland's chief of certification.

The No Child Left Behind requirement aims at the fact that many U.S. teachers are schooled in how to teach but not in what they teach. In 1999, for example, 41 percent of the country's eighth-graders had a math teacher who majored in math, compared with a worldwide average of 70 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some teachers say their colleagues without a content degree are at a disadvantage -- and so, by extension, are their students. But many middle school principals say that students benefit from generalists as well as specialists, that knowledge comes in many forms and that systems are in place to detect when teachers don't know their stuff.

Doran, the Pyle principal, said the new requirement doesn't make sense for middle school teachers. "It's not rocket science when you're teaching the sixth- and seventh-grade curriculum," he said.

Phillips agreed. "I wouldn't presume to teach 12th-grade AP English," she said, "and probably not even ninth grade."

But Phillips, a voracious reader and persistent questioner, says she never feels as though the material is beyond her. When she needs to know more, she said, she checks curriculum guides, Web sites and Cliffs Notes. She also seeks help from other teachers, including one she calls "my grammar goddess."

Officials in most states have yet to figure out how their teachers will prove content knowledge. Some, in such states as Florida and Alabama, say they plan to rely on a standardized test, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit association of school officials. Given the tight time frame of the law, many states might resort to a multiple-choice test, such as the Educational Testing Service's Praxis II, said Kathy Christie, vice president for the commission's research arm.

"I have absolutely no doubt about that," Christie said. "You need to come up with some way to [set] objective criteria." Judging a teacher's subject mastery on the basis of classroom observations, she said, is simply not objective.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, which represents 2.7 million educators, cringes at the possibility of resorting to what he sees as a rigid, and intimidating, measure. "If it's not handled properly," he said, "the potential is that a number of people who are certified and qualified now will leave the profession, and our shortage will be even greater than it is now."

Virginia is exploring an option that would require teachers not "highly qualified" in content to take professional development courses to renew their teaching licenses. License renewal is done every five years.

The District has not yet established a standard.

For Maryland's veteran teachers who don't meet the federal criteria and don't want to sit for an exam, officials are crafting a multifaceted model of evaluation that weighs years of experience, course work, awards, conference presentations, publications, service on content-related committees and positions as department heads, mentors or college instructors.

Doran is concerned that even with a standard as broad as Maryland's, "we'll chase away some of the best teachers in the building." Indeed, Pyle Middle School social studies teacher Barbara Bell, 56, said that if she didn't meet the criteria and had to take more courses or an exam, "at this stage in my career, I wouldn't bother."

Phillips has not presented papers at English conferences, chaired department committees or helped design a curriculum. She has not taught English in college. As it is, she estimates that she works 60 hours a week, not just teaching, planning and grading but also helping students with homework many nights over the telephone.

Still, Phillips said that without children of her own, she has the time to take more courses, study for an exam, "jump through the hoops." And she plans to do just that.

Yet she worries: "Will there be enough time to jump through the hoops before I'm fired?"

© 2003 The Washington Post Company