Teacher qualifications called into question

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(Host) As part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public school teachers who teach core subjects like math, English and history must be highly qualified. Last week, 8,000 teachers in Vermont received letters informing them of this requirement.

But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, more than one-third were told that the state could not determine if they met the required standards.

(Keck) John Peterson is one of those teachers you wish you’d had in school. His history classes at Rutland High School are lively and popular, and it’s obvious the 18-year veteran loves what he does.

(Sound from Peterson’s class) “The excerpt from the Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Upton Sinclair was talking about what? Meat packaging and other abuses there….”

(Keck) But despite an undergraduate degree from Brown University, a graduate degree, numerous teaching awards and a Vermont teaching license, Peterson says the state informed him last week they’re not sure if he’s qualified.

(Peterson) “It was a humiliating experience. It felt like a real kick in the stomach.”

(Keck) Rutland High School science teacher George Hooker says he too got the letter.

(Hooker) “Well, I was flabbergasted. I have a bachelor of science in secondary education with a concentration in biology, which is exactly what I’ve been doing for 31 years. So I don’t know where the glitch is.”

(Keck) Hooker laughed and said at least he’s in good company. Vermont’s Teacher of the Year, Michael Dwyer, has also been asked to demonstrate his credentials. According to the Department of Education, 2,800 teachers have until March 12 to send in copies of their college transcripts with applicable coursework. Or they need to demonstrate they’ve taken part in ongoing professional development activities, have years of experience teaching their subject, or have taught their subject at the college level. Peterson says for him, it means an exasperating paper chase.

(Peterson) “My undergraduate degree is titled American Civilization and part of the problem is that that seems ambiguous. It’s not history or geography or civics and government. And so I need to demonstrate with my undergraduate and graduate coursework that I have fulfilled this rigid set of content area qualifications.”

(Keck) State Education Commissioner Richard Cate says Vermont is simply following the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. That law states that anyone who teaches core subjects – and those include English, reading, language arts, math science, foreign languages, civics, economics, history, geography, art or music – those teachers must be highly qualified. Cate says Vermont’s teaching standards are rigorous.

But he says when they implemented the federal law this year, the state added some new criteria. That’s why people who got their teaching licenses 20 or 30 years ago may not have submitted certain paperwork the state now requires. Cate says the letter that went out last week did not question teachers’ qualifications. Rather it explained that in some instances, the state just needed more information.

(Cate) “When you think of all the headlines that have been written about No Child Left Behind, and the piece about the requirement for qualified teachers. There are a lot of parents who see that and say, ‘Hmmm? I wonder.’ If sending that transcript to us eliminates any possibility of question on the part of parents about the qualifications of their teachers, then I think it was worth the effort it takes to get the transcript to us.”

(Keck) But William Mathis, head of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union isn’t so sure. He says it’s against the law to have unlicensed teachers in Vermont. And while waivers are granted in some instances, Mathis says the issue of teacher competency under No Child Left Behind was really geared more for poor, inner city schools, which often have trouble filling positions. He says spending so much time and money reassessing Vermont teachers is a waste of limited resources.

(Mathis) “We simply know everyone who’s licensed and what they’re teaching and whether they’re properly licensed or waivered for it. So in that sense I think it’s redundant. I’m not so sure that it will really result in better teachers as a result of all the paper pushing.”

(Keck) Teachers have until the end of the 2005-2006 school year to get any additional training to meet the new requirements. Angelo Dorta, head of the Vermont Teachers Union, says at that point, school districts must inform parents if their children are being taught by someone who is not certified as highly qualified.

(Dorta) “There’s an embarrassment and insulting factor there in terms of school districts having to release a report. But there is nothing in the law that I’m aware of that actually levies a sanction against the teacher or school district.”

(Keck) Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate admits that just because someone has the necessary paperwork, doesn’t mean he or she is a good teacher. What goes on in the classroom, he says, is most important. But Cate believes strong standards are also vital. Teacher John Peterson is all for high standards, but he says it’s depressing that what’s ends up being stressed is paperwork.

(Peterson) “It seams like everything has to be reduced to this very simplistic formula. What parents would like, their child to be just a set of numbers? And it just felt that this is what they’re doing now to teachers. You’re being turned into just another grid with checkmarks on it. And this is what makes you a good teacher.”

(Keck) Any teacher in Vermont who has questions about the situation is encouraged to call the Department of Education.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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