`No Child Left Behind' rules eased for some teachers

Education Dept. to give rural educators more time

March 16, 2004|By Elizabeth Shogren and Duke Helfand | Elizabeth Shogren and Duke Helfand,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration eased the hiring standards for some hard-to-fill teaching positions yesterday with revisions to its No Child Left Behind Act, the education initiative that has been assailed for imposing strict testing requirements on public schools.

The new policy will make it easier for rural teachers, science teachers and teachers of multiple subjects to be considered "highly qualified," thus meeting a requirement of the law that all public-school teachers of core subjects - such as math, English, history and science - achieve that standard.

It marked the third time since December that the Education Department has announced changes to No Child Left Behind, which establishes broad federal testing requirements for elementary and middle schools and became law two years ago with much bipartisan fanfare.

Since then, conservatives have blasted what they call a big-government approach to education reform, liberals have railed against what they term inadequate funding for compliance, and state legislatures have rebelled against the law, which uses federal funding as an incentive for schools to measure progress in meeting defined standards.

As part of those standards, teachers of core subjects must be designated "highly qualified" by the 2005-2006 school year - meaning that they must have bachelors' degrees, teacher certification and demonstrated knowledge of the subjects they teach.

Yesterday's announcement gives rural teachers, who may be highly qualified in one subject but teach others as well, three additional years to qualify in the other topics they teach.

It also gives states the flexibility to give science teachers a broad "science" qualification, rather than requiring a specific qualification for biology, chemistry and physics.

And it gives states the authority to determine that veteran teachers are "highly qualified" in multiple subjects without going back to school or getting additional degrees.

The changes reflect difficulties schools were facing, particularly in rural and low-income areas, as they tried to comply with the new federal standards, education officials said.

"We listened to educators from across the country, and we learned," Education Secretary Rod Paige said. "Today we are responding with changes that make sense, supporting state efforts to strengthen teacher quality and aiding the professionals in the classroom."

But teacher Alyson Mike, who works at East Valley Middle School in East Helena, Mont., said the extra year "won't make a darn bit of difference" for teachers who handle several subjects. Despite the new leeway, the law will force some teachers back to school, she said. Mike, her state's teacher of the year, said it's not even clear if she meets the law's terms.

"A lot of people I know that teach in small towns, they're making $25,000 a year if they're lucky," she said. "To go back to school to get another couple of degrees, I don't see it happening."

Still, Tracey Bailey, a former teacher of the year from Florida, said many teachers appreciate what the law means: They should not be assigned to classes out of their field.

"It's not fair to the teacher, it's not fair to the student, and it's not academically productive," said Bailey, who helped the department gather views from teachers nationwide.

The changes take effect immediately, and more are coming. The department is re-examining a testing provision that requires participation from 95 percent of students.

It's unclear how many teachers are unqualified under the law, mainly because the states' collection of that data is inconsistent, a problem the department is working to fix.

Ultimately, "highly qualified" may mean something quite different from Alabama to Wyoming, mainly because the states define quality for veteran teachers without needing federal approval.

Even many of the administration's critics said the recent changes were in the right direction, but they stressed that the law still has many flaws.

"There are absurd things about the law that need to be changed," said Daniel Kaufman of the National Education Association, which represents 2.7 million teachers. "The administration has made a dent into the mountain of confusing and illogical provisions in the law."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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