Incremental steps

March 16, 2004

THE U.S. Department of Education finally heard the cry that has echoed from heartland to tundra to holler.

For teachers in the nation's rural schools in particular, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act set a well-intentioned but unrealistically high bar. Yesterday's announcement granting extra time to meet the standard was the right response politically as well as educationally, given the breadth of support for the administration in rural America - and the depth of anger even some Republican governors have expressed regarding the rigid education law.

Teachers in a few of Maryland's small-town schools may stand to benefit, but the rule change was really tailor-made for states such as New Mexico, Alaska and Montana. Everyone knows it's hard to recruit teachers to work in small, rural and isolated school districts - an estimated third of the nation's school districts; those who choose to often must teach multiple topics, and outside of their areas of specialty. No one can argue with the federal law's noble goal of putting a well-trained teacher who has mastered the content in every classroom, but the challenge this presents to rural school systems is steep.

NCLB says states and school systems must have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006. The burden is on the teachers who lack the proper schooling or training to become credentialed in each subject they teach. Depending on the regulations in their states, they may have to return to school, work with a mentor, build a career portfolio, complete professional development classes and/or pass tests in each subject.

Yesterday's decision allows teachers in small, rural schools who are considered highly qualified in one subject three years to earn that designation in the other subjects they teach.

Forgive urban teachers a brief sigh of envy at their country cousins' good fortune. In Maryland, the greatest challenge to meeting the goal will be improving the number of highly qualified teachers working in Prince George's County and Baltimore City - which have no less recruitment and retention problems than their rural counterparts, though with different causes. State education officials estimate that about 65 percent of Maryland classrooms have highly qualified teachers, but only about 47 percent of classrooms serving impoverished students. The first sign of progress will be any closing of that gap.

Additional changes in the rules yesterday gave states alternatives for how they determine the competency of science teachers. And there are more changes to come, federal education officials forecast, characterizing their recent spate of rule-refining decisions as a "problem-solving" effort, based on suggestions gathered from educators across the country as states struggle to implement NCLB's sweeping provisions. They're listening: It's about time.

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