Qualifying `qualified'

December 09, 2003

MARYLAND HAS far to go before it can claim that every child in its public schools is being taught by a "highly qualified" teacher.

To comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, some states simply have rubber-stamped most of their teachers "highly qualified" and not looked back: The federal law allows each state to set its own bar. So give Maryland credit for effort: As the law intended, it is trying to ensure that by 2006, no matter where a child attends school, his or her teachers will meet an agreed-upon, if imperfect, standard of professional readiness.

To be "highly qualified" by Maryland's newly adopted rules, a teacher needs a college degree or major in the content they'll be teaching and passing scores on a standardized test of that subject; to be certified, that teacher also would have to pass a basic skills test and certain education courses.

Veteran teachers can become "highly qualified" by an another route: Some may accumulate points for career experience, honors earned and professional development and continuing education courses already completed, to avoid going back to school or taking the standardized tests.

No one is sure how many teachers can earn the "highly qualified" designation this way. The scramble is on to collect and check credentials, transcripts and proof of awards. Those responsible for handing out the points will have to be scrupulous, or this will amount to a sham.

With about 11.6 percent of the state's roughly 60,000 teachers uncertified, and the lion's share of these working in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, some targeted assistance is going to be necessary to train the teaching corps up to acceptable levels. It's widely acknowledged and very unsettling that a number of the uncertified teachers remain so because they have not passed the tests, which are said to be eighth- to 10th-grade level in difficulty.

The alternative is to let them go and impose hiring restrictions so that the worst-off schools cease to be havens for the least-prepared teachers. The Sun's recent analysis of student test scores and teacher credentials confirms this disturbing trend: The Baltimore region's lowest-scoring schools, all in the city, are staffed disproportionately with teachers lacking basic state certification. Meanwhile, in the Baltimore area's 25 top-performing schools, all but 2 percent of the teachers are certified. And go figure: The high-flying schools also have the greater concentration of teachers with advanced experience and master's degrees.

This disparity can't be solved only through training, layoffs or hiring limits; improved working conditions also are needed to help the districts attract better-prepared teachers, and retain the best of their trainees.

Teacher certification and the "highly qualified" status indicate minimums of classroom readiness: As labels, they are not good predictors of a teacher's effectiveness. But when Maryland officials recently estimated for a federal report that only 64 percent of classrooms statewide had highly qualified teachers - and only 46 percent of classrooms serving poor children - one had to wonder:

Would scores go up if every child had a fully trained, fully credentialed teacher? Let's put one in every classroom and find out.

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