By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Nearly 800 D.C. public school instructors are teaching classes outside their licensed area of expertise, fewer than in previous years but still far more than in other school systems in the region, and a violation of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires "highly qualified" educators in each classroom.
District officials, who sent letters over the holiday break to parents of children taking classes from unqualified teachers, caution that the number is misleading and said it reveals more about inadequacies in the law than the quality of instruction. They said the provision places undue emphasis on credentials rather than effectiveness.
Federal and state laws require highly qualified teachers to have a bachelor's degree, hold a state license in the subjects they teach and pass a test demonstrating their knowledge of those subjects. But staffing shortages, and competition with wealthier school systems over hiring, have sometimes forced the District to use teachers outside their areas of certification. Officials say the total also reflects the large number of new teachers who have a grace period to seek licenses.
In the 2007-08 school year, 49.2 percent of District classes were led by teachers deemed unqualified. In Prince George's County, 27 percent of classes had an instructor with that designation; the proportion in Montgomery County was 7.5 percent, and it was just 1 percent in Fairfax County.
One purpose for the "highly qualified" designation was to help school districts monitor the distribution of unlicensed teachers so that a disproportionate number did not end up in the lowest-performing schools. A 2007 analysis by The Washington Post showed that schools with poorer students were likely to have more teachers who did not meet the standard.
But some education experts say the tag often tells parents little about what is going on in their child's classroom.
"It sends an alarm bell to parents, but I'm not sure it adds value," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reforms to raise the level of teaching. "I don't know anybody who could draw a direct correlation between being highly qualified and being effective."
Although some District parents expressed alarm at the letters, others said the "not highly qualified" designation does not always match up with their assessment of teachers.
Schools activist Iris Toyer, who has a son at McKinley Technical High School, said she received a letter naming three of his instructors as unqualified. One is certified for math but is teaching physics. The other two, who teach math and English, are new instructors still within their grace periods for getting certification but are doing well.
"My experience with this whole 'highly qualified' designation is that it often means very little," Toyer said. "My son has had teachers who have been fully certified that I would have liked to strangle. He has had other teachers who were not certified, much less highly qualified, who were fabulous."
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, a staunch supporter of No Child Left Behind, has nevertheless called for the law to be changed so that teachers are evaluated more on the basis of student performance than on credentials. "In our estimates, that is far more important than whether or not a teacher is highly qualified," said Dena Iverson, Rhee's spokeswoman.
Parents' uncertainty was compounded by online confusion. The letters home instructed parents to check the D.C. schools Web site for the names of the unqualified teachers, but several reported that the system pulled up the names of teachers their children had last year.
A representative of the chancellor e-mailed parents this week to apologize that the site was "not working correctly" and to say the problems had been fixed.
The number of unqualified D.C. teachers is down from 1,187 last year. Last summer, Rhee fired 250 teachers who missed deadlines to obtain their licenses.
School officials expect the number to continue to decline. Some teachers will probably be let go as part of Rhee's quest to oust a significant portion of the District's 4,000-member teaching corps.
A key change in D.C. law may also have an impact. Until March last year, the District's requirements for the "highly qualified" designation were actually more stringent than the federal law's. It meant that a fully certified chemistry teacher, for example, could not teach math without completing a minimum of 33 hours of additional coursework to gain an additional license, regardless of how much he or she knew about the subject.
The D.C. State Board of Education relaxed the rules to give teachers other options for becoming qualified, such as passing a content exam. Officials said they hoped it would remove barriers that have kept potentially effective teachers out of the classroom.