State at bottom for 'qualified' teachers

Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2003

WASHINGTON Teachers in many of Alaska's rural districts teach several subjects. Under new federal standards, to claim ''highly qualified teacher'' credentials they would have to hold bachelor's degrees in each subject they teach or pass tests that show full knowledge of all the topics.

Only 16 percent of Alaska's classes are taught by highly qualified instructors, the lowest percentage in the country. By the end of the 2005-06 school year, every teacher of every core class in the country must be highly qualified.

Federal Education Department officials, promising to work with the states, have encouraged hard-pressed states such as Alaska to come up with creative ways to qualify teachers.

''We're doing everything we can,'' said Cynthia Curran, Alaska's administrator for teacher education and certification. ''But creativity only takes you so far.''

Other states need less creativity: Wisconsin, the nation's best, has reached near perfection.

States are reporting widely varying starting points as they make public the percentage of classes taught by ''highly qualified teachers,'' those who have bachelor's degrees, state certification and demonstrated mastery of every subject they teach.

All states must use that framework, which means the figures released in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press present the first benchmark of the country's teaching corps under the 2002 law. Still, national comparisons are imperfect because states set their own standards for licensing and subject mastery by veteran teachers.

Besides Alaska, two other states reported that fewer than half their classes made the mark: Alabama, at 35 percent, and California, at 48 percent.

Wisconsin reported almost 99 percent of classes had top teachers, and Idaho, Arkansas, Connecticut, Minnesota, Indiana, Massachu-setts, Utah, Michigan, Pennsyl-vania, Kentucky and Wyoming reported totals of at least 95 percent.

Overall, 39 states and the District of Columbia reported data, and most said that at least eight in 10 teachers already were highly qualified. The 11 states that did not report information were required to send it in or receive no federal money this month.

The reporting will put a spotlight on the states and the areas within states that need the most improvement, said Celia Sims, who coordinates federal applications for the Education Depart-ment. The department will provide help, and the public will get more involved, Sims said.

''In the past, parents have never had this type of information,'' Sims said. ''It's kind of been that dirty little secret over the years, and what we're beginning to do is uncover that.''

Several states indicated problems in coming up with the figures in the way the department wanted: percentage of classes taught by highly qualified teachers, not the percentage of top teachers themselves. The distinction is meant to expose situations in which teachers qualified in one subject are assigned to teach classes outside the field they know.

The top education official in Wisconsin, state superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, said it's no surprise her state reports having a highly qualified teacher in almost every class. A mix of factors high standards set for teaching certification, strong schools of education, active professional teaching groups have long boosted teacher quality, she said.

Overall, the figures should be viewed with a skeptical eye, said Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group for minority and low-income students. For example, he said, some states may have presented rosy reports based on the standards they chose for veteran teachers, which required no federal approval.

''They're telling the public, 'We don't have a problem,''' Wiener said. ''The purpose of the teacher-quality provision is to allow stake holders to identify unmet needs. And the states that have honestly presented the challenge they face are going to have an easier time getting traction ... in meeting those challenges.''

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