Certification Is Just One Step In Being Able To Teach

North Carolina has struggled to get all of its teachers certified in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act. Some of the worst-performing districts are under court orders to have their teachers fully qualified and students' test scores higher. At Northwest Halifax High School in a rural corner of the state, all the teachers are qualified, but the student test scores are still abysmal. Does putting a licensed teacher in front of a classroom guarantee successful student performance?

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Most states say they're complying with the No Child Left Behind Act, or at least close. Its requirements for teachers seem pretty simple. A teacher must have a college degree, a license to teach and be competent in the subject. In the next few minutes, we'll visit a school that illustrates why it's not so simple.

It's in rural North Carolina, which says 98 percent of its teachers are licensed and qualified, but that still leaves the question of whether those teachers are effective. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Few people in the state of North Carolina understand the impact that poor quality teachers have on children better than Howard Manning, Jr.

Mr. HOWARD MANNING JR.: I call it academic genocide.

SANCHEZ: Manning, a Superior Court judge in Wake County, was appointed four years ago to enforce a court order requiring failing school districts to raise their test sores and improve the quality of instruction.

Mr. MANNING: When you have seven out of 10 children in the eighth grade below grade level in reading and math. That's terrible.

SANCHEZ: Manning is referring to the latest results from Halifax County, an impoverished rural school district a few miles from the North Carolina/Virginia border. Only six out of 10 students in Halifax graduate from high school, and those who do are ill prepared for college or work. The problem, says Manning, boils down to two things: school administrators who don't believe their students can learn and teachers who cannot teach.

Mr. MANNING: It's an abomination and that's why I've been pushing since 2005, starting with the high schools, getting these places cleaned up.

SANCHEZ: That, says Phillip Rountree, is his job.

Mr. PHILLIP ROUNTREE (Principal, Northwest High School): Let's go. Let's be moving. My sidewalks need to be clean. Let's go.

SANCHEZ: Rountree is the principal at one of two high schools in Halifax County, Northwest High, where he arrived with a reputation for turning around failing schools. He's convinced these kids are better behaved and working harder since he took over three years ago. In part, because he imposed a tougher code of conduct, got parents involved and for the first time in memory, made sure every teacher at Northwest High has a college degree and a state license.

Mr. ROUNTREE: They have gotten the certification for the areas that they were teaching in and they have passed all the required tests. They are qualified. They had a clear license.

SANCHEZ: Now, this is no small feat, says Rountree, because it's so hard for poor, isolated rural communities, like Halifax County, to attract and keep good teachers. But once you have them, does a license or passing a test guarantee you're a good teacher?

Mr. ROUNTREE: I'm so glad you asked that. No, it doesn't, it doesn't.

SANCHEZ: Rountree points to his own teacher's license, framed on a wall next to his college diploma and several certificates.

Mr. ROUNTREE: I went (unintelligible). I've gotten my stuff on the wall but that doesn't make me effective. The effectiveness comes from here, right here in the heart. This don't mean a hill of beans.

SANCHEZ: Rebecca Garland begs to differ. She oversees teacher licensing in North Carolina and says a license means the state doesn't just let anybody teach.

Ms. REBECCA GARLAND: We are not supposed to hire people that don't have minimum credentials.

SANCHEZ: In North Carolina, as in most states, Garland says, the licensing process makes sure applicants meet the minimum basic skills and qualifications necessary to work as a teacher. But North Carolina has gone further. It's now requiring that teachers not just be licensed but that they show their students are learning.

Ms. GARLAND: Student performance on assessments must be a major component in determining which teachers are effective.

SANCHEZ: Test scores are now a huge consideration both in evaluating North Carolina teachers and deciding whether their licenses should be renewed every three years.

Mr. ANDRE STEWART (Chair, Social Studies Department, Coach, Football and Baseball, Northwest Halifax High): For me, being a good teacher goes far beyond test scores.

SANCHEZ: That's Andre Stewart, chair of the social studies department at Northwest Halifax High, as well as the football and baseball coach. Yes, by all accounts, the coach is one of the school's most effective teachers.

Mr. STEWART: I have a passion for what I do. I want to be here. Now, what I'm aiming for is to try to get my children to be able to think.

All right. So, we have the budget with $400 a month. So, can I go at maybe $75 a month for clothes?

CLASS: No.

SANCHEZ: A lot of kids in other classrooms are visiting. Students from Stewart's 10th grade economics class (unintelligible) disruptive or copying something out of the textbook for the entire period.

Mr. STEWART: Some people will walk through my door and they would think this is utter chaos. What some term chaos I term engagement.

SANCHEZ: Stewart says engaging students is the only way a teacher even has a shot at motivating them to learn, work hard and do well on standardized tests, which is what Stewart has done all three years he's taught at Northwest High -raise the students' test scores. As far as the state is concerned, that makes Stewart an effective teacher.

Mr. STEWART: Unfortunately, for us in the teaching profession, we don't know whether you're good at it until you actually get into it.

SANCHEZ: Stewart is the kind of teacher that Judge Howard Manning Jr. would love to see more of in Halifax County. Manning can't understand why it's so hard to find good teachers and turn schools around. But that's what they have to do, he says.

Mr. MANNING: In the end, if they don't, then I have the authority to come in with a big fat baseball bat and whack them on the head. But I have to give them the chance to do it first.

SANCHEZ: Judge Manning concedes, though, it'll be years before North Carolina can truly claim that all its teachers are capable of providing students the quality education they deserve.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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