#039;Highly qualified#039; mandate tough

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 3, 2003

According to President George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, by the year 2007, every teacher in America must be a highly qualified teacher.

The problem is that nobody seems to know exactly what that means other than the need for more teacher education. The definition was left up to individual states and Alabama is still constructing a draft.

According to NCLB, teachers-especially secondary education teachers-must be qualified in their subject of expertise.

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For example, a chemistry teacher must be "highly qualified" to teach chemistry, a history teacher must be "highly qualified" to teach history and so on.

It is certain that some teachers will have to take an extra chemistry or history class, but beyond that the mandate gets hazy.

"The problem is that we don't know what highly qualified means," said Goshen High School Principal Gene Nelson.

"Are we talking about someone who has college degrees or someone who can actually do something?"

In the fall, schools must send letters home to parents whose children are being taught by teachers who are not highly qualified.

But administrators say parents should recognize what is not being said in the letter.

"I don't have a single teacher here who is not qualified to teach," Nelson said.

He gave an example of a 19-year veteran science teacher and a teacher fresh out of college with a master's degree but no teaching experience.

According to the mandate, the second teacher is highly qualified but the first is not.

"But who would you consider highly qualified?" Nelson asked.

"If I were you, I'd want my kids to be taught by the teacher with proven experience."

Troy Elementary Principal Geoffrey Spann said he and some of the teachers are worried about how parents will perceive the letters.

"The only problem I've seen is the concern of the teachers and the perception of the public that the teachers aren't qualified to teach," he said.

Spann said his teachers have always been qualified to teach, it's just that now they have a new standard to meet.

"The new standard doesn't change the fact that the teachers can teach," he said.

"They are all certified, (the government) is just raising the bar."

Spann said the elementary teachers who are not highly qualified only lack a few classes and he is anticipating the completion of those classes before the new school year.

Troy City Superintendent Hank Jones said only 23 percent of Troy City teachers are unqualified but that most of them will meet the standards before the fall.

"I have evaluated every transcript of every teacher in the system and I have shared with the teachers whether or not they are highly qualified," he said.

"People at this point know what they are missing."

He said his teachers, as well as the majority of teachers in Alabama, are qualified to teach, they just don't meet the technical federal definition of highly qualified.

"It's just meeting another piece of read tape," Jones said.

"It's one more requirement from a federal bureaucracy."

Pike County Superintendent Mark Bazzell said a good number of teachers in the Pike County school system will also be highly qualified before the new school year.

"Over 51 percent of our teachers already meet the highly qualified standards," he said.

"That's a positive number and every year the percentage will increase."

By the end of the summer, Bazzell hopes the percentage will be over 70.

Bazzell said when the teachers were hired, they met all of the state standards for certification, but now they must make an extra effort.

"No Child Left Behind is from the federal level and it's a little different than what we have in place," he said.

"We will all need to make an adjustment to meet those standards."

But those adjustments cost money and although the federal government has set aside funds to help defray the costs, it may not help completely.

That means that some already-strapped school boards or teachers' pocketbooks could cover the majority of the expenses.

"Is it fair?" Nelson asked.

"Who pays for that?

The system does.

Here we are when education is in the toilet across the nation and the federal government slaps down a new, unfunded federal mandate."

For the most part, though, Troy City and Pike County Schools will be okay.

Jones said his school system has set aside funding to help their teachers become more qualified and Bazzell said Pike County has access to federal funds.

Despite the uncertainty and the obstacles brought about by the new mandate, administrators agree it was written with good intentions.

"The intent is good, there are just a lot of flaws in the execution of it," Nelson said.