Can Teachers Measure Up?
Qualified teachers are in high demand, but critics say new accountability rules are full of loopholes
After graduating from New Mexico State University in May, 23-year-old Ted Frigillana is teaching geography and world history this fall at Omaha North High School--his pick of five different job offers. Math teacher Michael Tewksbury was wooed by three school systems last summer just halfway through Virginia Commonwealth University's two-year education master's program; he jumped and did his student teaching on the job. Less than a month before starting work at East Burke High in Icard, N.C., newly minted English teacher and East Carolina University grad Lea Mull fielded five recruiting calls from schools "I've never even heard of."
Sharp young teachers are in a seller's market these days--and not just because of shortages plaguing many parts of the country. While the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind may have received more attention, the federal law is equally clear that all kids deserve fine teachers and that staffing solutions of years past--too many people with subpar credentials or assigned to subjects out of their field--no longer pass muster. By the end of this school year, all teachers of core academic classes must be "highly qualified" in their content area, and administrators are racing to beat the deadline.
Hot prospects . With the clock ticking, they're coming up with all the incentives they can muster to lure new grads who meet the law's standards by having majored in their subjects or passed a competency test. Frigillana was drawn to Omaha by the promise of a free master's degree, fully paid health insurance, and job-search help for his wife. Fast-growing Clark County, Nev., sends more than 100 recruiters on the road during the year in search of 2,000-plus hires, dangling relocation bonuses and generous retirement benefits. Mull's district in North Carolina--a state that will need 30,000 teachers over the next three years and produces just 3,500 annually--recruits at university job fairs up and down the eastern seaboard and reels in candidates with signing bonuses and southern hospitality. "We help them apply for their license, help them find places to live," says personnel director Steve Demiter. "I'll find them a significant other if I need to!"
Fruitful as these hiring efforts may be, success boosting teacher quality depends even more heavily on the veterans already in the classroom. But the rules on how they can prove their content knowledge are decidedly murky, leading many experts to question how much real progress will be made by spring. Under No Child Left Behind, each state gets to determine what brings its own teaching veterans up to snuff--and most excuse them from passing tests or taking substantial subject-area course work if they can show they've logged a certain number of points for years in the classroom or a range of professional activities. The result? Well over half of states now report that 90 percent or more of core classes are taught by highly qualified teachers.
But critics like Michael Petrilli, a former U.S. Education Department official who is now vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, says the state rules are so filled with loopholes that they are doing little to ensure that veterans really have what it takes. A recent analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality found plenty of examples of ways someone lacking subject-area expertise can be deemed highly qualified by accumulating credits for such activities as mentoring, studying pedagogy, and being a member of an education organization. Alaska gives 5 points to anyone fluent in a foreign language, for example; Maine allows credit for sponsoring an academic club. And a number of states give seasoned teachers a pass for positive evaluations. By next spring, says Kate Walsh, NCTQ president, "states that don't report that 100 percent of classes are taught by highly qualified teachers are the only ones anybody should believe."