Most teachers ‘highly qualified,’ but thousands are not counted

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More than six months behind its original schedule, Chicago Public Schools reports that most teachers are considered “highly qualified” under No Child Left Behind, a sweeping federal education law that ratcheted up public school accountability. However, the methods CPS used to collect teacher credentials and its decision to exclude substitutes have raised questions about the accuracy of its findings.

According to the audit, 87 percent of the district’s 15,343 classroom teachers met the law’s guidelines for competence in core academic subjects—a regular or alternative teaching certificate and a college degree or endorsement in every core subject taught.

Close to half of the 1,985 teachers who fell short are bilingual teachers whose certification is no longer considered sufficient for teaching other core subjects.

By grade level, middle school teachers were more likely to fall short (22 percent) than were elementary school teachers (7 percent) and high school teachers (13 percent).

“Overall, I am very pleased with the audit findings,” schools CEO Arne Duncan said at an April 11 press conference.

However, the CPS audit did not include some categories of teachers, particularly substitutes, who are less likely to be fully certified or have subject area endorsements. Also, out-of-field teaching may be slightly underreported because some reports of teaching assignments have not been verified.

Still, CPS had little choice about gathering and publishing this data. Under No Child Left Behind, any parent whose child has been taught for more than four weeks by a teacher who is not “highly qualified” is to get written notification. Letters were supposed to go out beginning October 2002.

By October, however, the state had not yet completed its part of the definition of “highly qualified,” and CPS did not have accurate data on teacher qualifications or on classroom assignments. Even so, community groups like ACORN for Chicago pressured CPS to release the information it had. ACORN conducted its own study of high school teacher qualifications in 2001.

No Child Left Behind gives school districts until the fall of 2005 to ensure that 100 percent of teachers are highly qualified. CPS has announced that it will offer tuition reimbursements and other incentives to teachers who need to get more training. It also is instructing principals to assign teachers according to their certification.

Also, the district and Chicago Teachers Union officials are developing other measures of teachers’ abilities besides college credits.

The following are details of the audit and what CPS is required to do next:

What does federal law require?

One of the goals of No Child Left Behind is to ensure that all teachers are “highly qualified” to teach the subjects they are teaching, and that parents are notified if their child is being taught a core subject by a teacher who is not. While districts have until 2005-06 to become fully compliant, the new law prohibits them, effective last September, from hiring any new teachers in Title I schools who are not already highly qualified. (CPS applied the ban to all district schools.)

What does “highly qualified” mean?

Generally, federal law defines a “highly qualified” teacher as one who is fully certified to teach at their assigned grade level and who has passed official muster—through a college degree, an endorsement or passing a state test—in all of the subject areas that they are assigned to teach. Last year, the Illinois Board of Education determined that teachers would have to be certified and have an endorsement or major in the subjects they teach, and that bilingual and provisional certificates were not sufficient to meet the federal definition for subject area competence.

What subject areas are covered?

CPS audited teacher credentials in 10 federally mandated academic areas: reading, English, math, science, foreign languages, history, geography, civics/government, economics and language arts. Non-academic courses, such as physical education and vocational courses, were not audited. According to CPS, roughly 60 percent of the district’s some 27,000 teachers teach core subjects.

Assessing core subject knowledge was fairly straightforward for elementary teachers, who teach all subjects, and high school teachers, who specialize in at least one subject. Middle school teachers, on the other hand, were assessed under two criteria set by the state. A general K-8 teaching certificate was acceptable for middle school teachers who taught all subjects. Teachers whose middle schools had divvied up teaching duties by subject were considered highly qualified if they were endorsed to teach the subject they were assigned.

How is this definition different from previous state requirements?

Before No Child Left Behind, Illinois middle and high school teachers were allowed to teach nearly half their course load in subjects they were not endorsed or certified to teach. A science teacher could teach a section of reading, for example, or a history teacher could teach a couple of sections of English.

Are there any penalties if a district fails to comply?

Not in the short term. However, a state could cite a district for being out of compliance with teacher quality standards. The federal government could withhold Title 1 funds if a district fails to meet this and other NCLB requirements.

What has CPS done to comply with the law thus far?

Last year, CPS instructed principals to hire only highly qualified teachers, stepped up its recruiting efforts and launched a district-wide audit to collect teacher credentials and course assignments. Lacking a complete and up-to-date source of teachers’ credentials, the district set up a web-based system where teachers could verify their credentials and add information on recently earned subject area endorsements or certifications. Principals then plugged in their teachers’ assignments. Finally, district officials identified teachers who lacked credentials or were teaching out of their field. This work was completed in April. CPS says developing the audit system cost more than $750,000.

In early April, CPS mailed 55,700 notices informing parents that from one to as many as five of their child’s teachers were not highly qualified. The vast majority of the letters—roughly 43,000—were sent to parents of high school children.

Who was counted and who wasn’t?

The audit included roughly 15,816 of Chicago’s 25,500 teachers, those who teach core academic subjects. However, it did not collect credentials for substitute teachers who are assigned full time to more than 1,400 vacancies in the system or 565 “cadre” substitutes who essentially work full time. Also left out were 5,650 special education teachers because the state has not yet set the criteria that would determine who was highly qualified.

Why notify parents about highly qualified teachers?

Under-prepared teachers and out-of-field teaching remain stubborn problems in many low-performing Chicago schools where principals often struggle to find certified teachers to fill vacancies.

Overall, research has shown that teacher qualifications and teaching assignments make a significant difference in student achievement. Poor and minority children are four times as likely to have an unprepared or under-prepared teacher, and a recent audit of probation schools in Chicago found that low-performing schools tended to have higher rates of under-prepared teachers.

Still, CPS and Chicago Teachers Union officials are quick to point out that there is no established link between an individual teacher’s certification and student performance. Only two of the 37 schools with fewer than 70 percent highly qualified teachers are currently on probation. Likewise, only 56 percent of teachers at Hawthorne Elementary—one of the best-scoring schools in the system—were designated highly qualified, according to the CPS audit.

The audit “does not tell you whether a teacher is good or not,” says Duncan.

Madeline Talbott of ACORN says teachers recruited from elsewhere, such as an experienced physics teacher from South Africa, would be cited if they had not yet been certified to teach in Illinois.

What can parents do if their child’s teacher(s) are not “highly qualified?”

Not much, at least in the short term. No Child Left Behind does not provide for school transfers or extra tutoring if teachers are not highly qualified. Also, since parents cannot obtain the credentials of teachers who do not work with their children, they are hamstrung in requesting transfers to another classroom. Their sole recourse is to use teacher qualification data to raise their concerns about teacher hiring and assignments with the principal and the LSC.

What happens next?

Later this spring, CPS plans to audit credentials for substitute teachers and verify the elementary school teaching assignments. At the same time, many teachers will likely become highly qualified through tests or other means. For the next two years, the district says it will audit teacher credentials and assignments and notify parents twice a year.

Teachers who are not “highly qualified” have two years to get the necessary credentials. Many will take state certification tests or go back to school for additional credits to get content area endorsements.

To assist them, CTU is holding test preparation workshops, and they’re working with state officials to develop alternative measures for teachers to demonstrate their proficiency.

Likewise, district officials are expanding a tuition reimbursement program for math and science teachers, and are considering helping to offset other expenses such as transcript and test fees. “We want to make sure that no teacher is left behind,” says Peter Boodell, who helped oversee the CPS teacher credential audit.

ACORN and others think that complying with No Child is only a beginning. CPS must come to grips with teacher turnover, they say. According to Talbott, CPS does not track teacher retention data and has seen no decrease in vacancies despite impressive changes in recruitment. “They are working so hard on recruitment,” she says, “but they have not got it yet that retention is where it’s at.”