States Struggle to Certify 'Qualified' Teachers

The No Child Left Behind education law mandates that by year's end, every state should have ensured that every teacher is "highly qualified." Yet no state has met the federal government's requirements under this provision.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The timetable for the law called No Child Left Behind is about to leave every state behind. The education law requires that 100 percent of the nation's classroom teachers have to be, quote, "highly qualified" by the end of this month, and it's not going to happen. According to the Education Department, not a single state will meet that goal. Most are at least a year behind, including the state we will feature this morning, North Carolina. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

A year ago this month, monitors from the U.S. Department of Education came to North Carolina and found thousands of teachers without education degrees or a state license to teach. Many veteran teachers had never taken a test to show they were competent in the subject or grade they were teaching. These are the minimum requirements for teachers to be highly qualified under No Child Left Behind. The problem was really serious in middle schools and special education programs, and in poor rural school systems like Hoke County, just south of Raleigh, the state capital. Here, vast fields of corn, tobacco and cotton blanket the landscape.

(Soundbite of school bus stopping)

Today, the last day of school, dozens of returning buses empty into Hoke County High School's parking lot with teachers soaked in sweat. This is the one day they ride home with students to keep the craziness to a minimum. Teachers, some huffing and puffing, make their way to a pickup truck with a large cooler filled with ice and cold drinks.

Unidentified Man #1: All right, come on over here and get yourself a beverage. Thanks for everything. We're proud of you.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #2:You made it.

SANCHEZ: A man in a bright red t-shirt with a two-way radio (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of radio traffic)

Unidentified Man #1: You can have cure wine, root beer or ginger ale.

SANCHEZ: A few feet away, Sam Queen, the principal of Hoke County High School, stands in the shade in a white shirt and a skinny tie, looking relieved. The last bus is back and there are no problems to report. But foremost on his mind, he says, is this question - will the federal government sanction his school? -because he relies so heavily on teachers like Rebecca Peyton(ph).

Mr. SAM QUEEN: She's highly qualified, but not on paper. She's got better test scores than some of our highly qualified teachers. So see, you got to put a little validity with some of that highly qualified, because highly qualified on paper doesn't mean they're highly qualified in the classroom.

SANCHEZ: Peyton, a short cheerful woman in her mid-20s has a college degree, but not in education. This is her first year as a teacher.

Ms. REBECCA PEYTON (Teacher, Hoke County School System, North Carolina: I was a legal assistant.

SANCHEZ: And so what are you teaching?

Ms. PEYTON: Civics and Economics.

Mr. QUEEN: She already knows her stuff, now she's got to go prove it to everybody else with all of the paperwork and the classes she takes.

SANCHEZ: To become highly qualified, Peyton needs 24 semester hours from an accredited education college. If she doesn't do it within 3 years…

Mr. QUEEN: She goes home.

Ms. PEYTON: Mm-hmm.

SANCHEZ: Really?

Ms. PEYTON: Yeah.

SANCHEZ: You lose a great teacher because…

Mr. QUEEN: Of some technicality that people have come up with. We have some qualified - we have some certified teachers that are not even close to being qualified to be in a classroom. They should be, you know, greeters at Wal-Mart or something.

SANCHEZ: That may sound harsh, but Queen is convinced that some people simply don't belong in the classroom unless they know the subject they teach, which is precisely what the No Child Left Behind law is trying to address. It's crucial, says Katie Haycock, head of the Education Trust, and the research is clear: Students taught by highly qualified teachers for at least three consecutive years soar academically. Kids who end up with poorly prepared teachers fall behind and stay behind, says Haycock.

Ms. KATIE HAYCOCK (Director, The Education Trust): We actually assign them teachers who are likely to drag them down. With the result that the gap between poor kids and other kids actually grows wider the longer they remain in school.

SANCHEZ: One reason poor kids end up with the least qualified teachers is due to the funding gap between poor and wealthy schools, but it's not the only reason, says Haycock.

Ms. HAYCOCK: Some has to do with collective bargaining agreements that allow teachers, as they gain seniority, to transfer away from the kids who most need them. Some of this has to do with within-school arguments about who should teach whom next year with the most experienced, best-educated teachers sort of rewarding themselves with the kids who least need them. But the result is simply devastating.

SANCHEZ: That's why the federal government had to step in, says Haycock. Could the U.S. Department of Education have done a better job, sooner, to demand that teachers all be highly qualified? Definitely, says Haycock. Everyone, she says, including the Education Department, dragged their feet.

Mr. RENE ISLAS (Chief of Staff, US Department of Education): Well, I'll have to disagree.

SANCHEZ: Rene Islas, of the U.S. Education Department, says states have had a lot of time to deal with the problem before the department does crack down.

Mr. ISLAS: Well, we've been very clear that if states are failing to reach the 100 percent target, but are making a good faith effort, not lying to the parents and to the public, then they are not in jeopardy of losing federal funds. But by 2013/2014 school year, we expect every single child to read at grade level, to perform mathematics at grade level. And if that's going to happen, it's going to take effective and qualified teachers helping students get there.

SANCHEZ: North Carolina, meanwhile, says it needs at least another year to meet the government's goal of 100 percent highly qualified teachers. Kathy Sullivan, who oversees teacher licensing, says that about 87 percent of North Carolina's teachers have a license. But the shortage of qualified teachers in fields like math and special education will worsen, with or without No Child Left Behind.

Dr. KATHY SULLIVAN (Director, Human Resource Management Division, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction): There are some people who would say that, well, you don't have a teacher shortage because you have plenty of teachers who have licenses. They're not licensed in the areas you need them licensed in, and they're not willing to go to the schools in which you need them to go. So it's not just a matter of a person with a generic teaching license.

SANCHEZ: If North Carolina does not get the one-year extension it's seeking, it could lose some of the $60 million in federal aid earmarked for teacher training. And that would probably hurt schools in poor, rural counties, like West Hoke Elementary, where Principal Stacy Stewart uses the money to pay her best teachers a $5,000 bonus to stay for at least three years.

Ms. STACY D. STEWART (Principal, West Hoke Elementary School): We all want our children to encounter highly the qualified teachers. You know, that's every parent's dream. That's every parent's desire for that child. But what do you do if there's a situation where you cannot attract or pull these persons in? That's unreasonable. And it's stressful.

SANCHEZ: Stewart says people in Washington, and Raleigh, the state capitol, have to be realistic. In the meantime, she has a kindergarten graduation to get to.

(Soundbite of crowd applauding)

Ms. STEWART: Congratulations, Class of 2005-2006.

SANCHEZ: Later that day, I asked parents whether teachers' credentials and college degrees matter? Linda Bailey(ph) and Katrina Macardo(ph) said sure. But what they most value at this school are teachers who cared, and proof that their children are learning.

Ms. LINDA BAILEY: These children knew that they were cared for. The moment they stepped into this door and they went into their classrooms, they knew that they were loved. They learnt.

Ms. KATRINA MACARDO: It's a good thing that they set standards. But, you know, I don't know, you know, what standard should be set. I mean, I know our kids are doing good here.

SANCHEZ: Hoke County has a total of 50 teachers with emergency licenses, akin to a learner's permit. If they don't become highly qualified by the end of the month, Hoke County won't be able to rehire them this fall. That's the law.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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