For Teachers, Being 'Highly Qualified' Is a Subjective Matter

Maria Lewis Ramadane at Graham Park Middle School became
Maria Lewis Ramadane at Graham Park Middle School became "highly qualified" to teach language arts in Virginia after doing extra coursework. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

To overhaul public education, the No Child Left Behind law required a massive expansion of student testing. But it also called for states to ensure that all teachers in core academic subjects are "highly qualified" to help students succeed -- an unprecedented mandate that has delivered less than promised.

The law, which turned five years old this week, has held schools to increasingly higher standards for student achievement. For teachers, however, standards meant to guarantee that they know their subjects are often vague and open to broad interpretation.

Legal loopholes and uneven implementation by states and the U.S. Department of Education have diluted the law's impact on the teaching workforce, some education experts say. They say that meeting the standards of quality is more about shuffling paper than achieving two vital goals: ensuring that teachers are prepared to help students succeed and reducing the teacher talent gap between rich and poor schools.

"Meeting the qualifications has become an exercise in bureaucratic compliance," said Andrew J. Rotherham, a member of the Virginia Board of Education and a former education adviser in the Clinton administration. "It's not a process that gets at the fundamental issues of quality or effectiveness." Congress may soon tackle those issues as it considers renewing the law.

The career path of Maria Lewis Ramadane shows what the mandate was meant to accomplish and its confusing results. The meaning of highly qualified, it turns out, varies sharply from place to place.

When Ramadane started teaching at Graham Park Middle School near Dumfries in 2003, the special education teacher didn't meet the law's standard because she had a provisional license. But after earning a master's degree and completing a 30-hour literacy class, she obtained full certification, and Virginia now deems her highly qualified to teach language arts.

In Maryland and the District, however, Ramadane would be asked for more: another standardized test, more professional coursework. Tougher rules are probably one reason Maryland and the District report lower rates of classrooms with highly qualified teachers: 79 percent in Maryland and 51 percent in the District, compared with 95 percent in Virginia. D.C. public schools -- and some in Maryland -- also face major recruiting obstacles.

This week, senior Democratic lawmakers discussed an extension of No Child Left Behind with President Bush. In the coming congressional debate over the law, teacher quality is likely to be a key issue. Some experts favor shifting the emphasis from "highly qualified" to "highly effective" teachers, requiring states to look not just at credentials but how well individual teachers help students learn and perform on tests.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said in an interview that teacher quality is one of his highest priorities. He has proposed spending more money to recruit and retain qualified teachers, particularly in low-income districts.

Miller said the current standards for subject matter competence and certification are the "bare minimum" and said that the government should establish systems to increase teacher effectiveness. "The law itself does not make you highly qualified," he said.

Some leaders of teacher unions say that raising salaries and improving working conditions are better ways to raise the caliber of the workforce. Princess Moss, president of the Virginia Education Association, questioned what she called "paperwork and needless requirements," particularly in areas with persistent teacher shortages, such as special education.

Ramadane said she has not found Virginia's requirements difficult, and she has taken extra classes in reading and writing instruction so she can keep challenging her Prince William County students. "Most teachers that I know go above and beyond," she said.

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