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Article of Interest - Teachers

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Bridges4Kids LogoNew requirements forcing teachers, states to scramble
'Highly qualified' rule set for 2006 by U.S. creates resentment, uncertainty.
by Tricia Bishop, Baltimore Sun, July 14, 2003
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After 27 years of working as an elementary school instructional assistant, Sharon Fischer just got word that she is qualified to do her job.

But she had to take a test to prove it.

"It's a slap in the face," said Fischer, who helps in kindergarten classes at William Winchester Elementary in Westminster.

"For nearly 30 years I've been doing this and getting wonderful evaluations and presenting at workshops and colleges here in town," she said. "And now, all of a sudden, I'm thought of as not being able to do the job that I love."

Fischer is one of thousands of incumbent instructional assistants and teachers across the country grappling with requirements that say educators must be "highly qualified" by 2006 to keep their jobs.

The rules are part of the latest reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind.

Nearly everyone - parents and educators alike - acknowledges that the concept is a good one. But the lack of clarity and official means to prove one's qualification has frightened many who say they don't know whether they have to go back to school to meet the demands, take tests to prove competency or simply sit tight and wait to be told they're fine.

And time keeps ticking toward the deadline.

"The biggest challenge we're all facing right now is waiting for state guidelines to come out so we know where to go as a next step," said Kirk Thompson, a school system human resources manager in Howard County.

States have been trying to interpret the requirement, signed into law Jan. 8 last year, to specify what "highly qualified" means.

Maryland is just now starting to enact its ideas, adopting exams last month that will give some teachers and instructional assistants paths to proving acceptable ability.

The state also has promised to bring an alternate process, called a HOUSSE, before the Maryland Board of Education for a vote this month. If adopted, the HOUSSE - which stands for high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation - will give teachers credit for career achievements.

"What we're trying to do is be consistent with the law, but yet give teachers multiple options for demonstrating competency," said state schools Assistant Superintendent Lawrence E. Leak, who oversees Maryland's division of certification and accreditation.

Leak and a team of others have spent the past few months "building a HOUSSE," based on a point system that incumbent teachers can use to determine their level of qualification.

The HOUSSE gives value to the years of experience many teachers have and assigns points for time served, college credits, publication in professional journals, teaching in higher-education settings and serving as mentors, among other things.

The federal requirements state that incumbent elementary school teachers delivering core-content education - such as math, science and English - must have at least a bachelor's degree and either pass a test that demonstrates their skill in the subjects they teach or meet a competency equivalent such as the HOUSSE.

Middle and secondary school teachers have the same options to prove qualification, but they can substitute an advanced degree or certification for the HOUSSE or skills test. New teachers don't have the HOUSSE option.

Requirements for instructional assistants apply only to those working in Title I schools, which receive extra funds to help disadvantaged students. Those workers must have two years of higher education or pass a skills test such as the ParaPro, which Fischer took as part of the pilot run to test the exam's efficiency.

ParaPro will be available to other instructional assistants Aug. 9.

The state would like to avoid such competency equivalencies altogether, though, by revamping its teacher certifications. "We're trying to quickly align the certification process so there is no difference between certification and 'highly qualified,'" Leak said.

Elementary education certification has been in alignment with the requirements contained in No Child Left Behind since 1987, and new tests adopted last month will help establish specialties for the many middle school teachers certified as kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers.

"One large area of concern is our middle school teachers," said Lin B. Blackman, director of human resources for the Anne Arundel County public school system. "Fifty percent of them are elementary certified, which makes them essentially generalists, and No Child Left Behind requires a content concentration."

Middle school teachers in that situation, elementary school teachers certified before 1987 and teachers working outside their fields - which includes special-education instructors who teach core content - are at the highest risk of being labeled inadequately qualified.

Blackman said Anne Arundel, like many school districts, has entered partnerships with local colleges and universities to offer low-cost coursework and develop in-house seminars to prepare teachers and instructional assistants for the tests they might need to pass - tests that trouble some.

"They say, 'Here's the test. If you pass this test, you can keep your job. If you fail this test, you have just lost your job,'" said Joseph R. Staub Jr., president of Howard County's teachers union. "That's my definition of high-stakes testing."

Staub, along with many others, said the tests don't demonstrate an educator's most important quality: teaching ability.

"It's as though anyone who understands math can teach math without necessarily understanding the students and how they learn and grow and develop," said Patricia Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association and a longtime Baltimore County educator.

"We believe that is a very inappropriate way to think about the education of pre-[kindergarten] to [12th-grade] students."

Foerster said there are good elements of the requirement, particularly the ability Maryland will give teachers to add endorsements, or specialties, to their certification so they can increase their options.

She also said anything the legislation does to reduce the number of teachers forced to teach outside their field will be greatly appreciated.

But Cathy G. Cerveny, the 1997 Maryland Teacher of the Year, worries that the legislation will erode the dwindling ranks of teachers.

"I'm really concerned. I think they made a mistake, and they need to address it," said Cerveny, who has taught for nearly 30 years in Baltimore County. "It's hard to keep young people in teaching because this is hard work, and the [federal requirement] just makes it harder."

Cerveny also fears that older teachers and instructional assistants will retire rather than spend the money and time it would take to earn the required credentials.

But Carroll County's Fischer dismissed that idea the minute she found out she officially passed the pilot ParaPro.

"I'm highly qualified now," she said with a laugh. "I finally made it. It took me 27 years."  

   

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