By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Area school officials say this week's news that teachers will have more flexibility in meeting new federal education standards will help, but they have mixed reactions about how relevant the change will be in helping them meet the standards of No Child Left Behind.
No Child Left Behind, President Bush's sweeping national education policy, originally required all teachers in core subjects to show they are "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-2006 school year.
"Highly qualified" as defined by the law means a teacher must have a bachelor's degree, be certified to teach in each subject they teach, and prove they know each subject they teach.
Many teachers with broad-field science or social science degrees feared they could be considered unqualified under the law. The requirement was considered particularly difficult for rural schools to meet because teachers in rural school districts often teach multiple subjects.
The changes announced earlier this week give teachers in rural school districts who are qualified in at least one subject an extra year to become highly qualified in the additional subjects they teach.
All school districts in Montana will be defined as rural by the U.S. Department of Education with the possible exception of districts in Great Falls, Missoula and Billings, said Joe Lamson, communications director for the Office of Public Instruction.
Under the new rules, states can allow science teachers to show they are highly qualified in the broad field of science, and can decide whether to require mastery of individual science disciplines.
Under No Child Left Behind before the revision, states could set a standard that existing teachers could meet to show they are qualified in each subject without having to take a test or get a new degree. But many education officials were not aware that flexibility existed, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The new guidelines allow states to develop an evaluation method so teachers can demonstrate they are highly qualified in each of their subjects without having to give a separate assessment for each subject.
OPI hopes it does not have to develop a separate evaluation method, Lamson said. He said that in September, OPI had told the Department of Education that Montana's teacher preparation and licensure process were adequate to demonstrate that teachers are highly qualified. Teachers with a Montana endorsement in broad-field science or social studies are highly qualified, OPI argued.
At first the department disagreed, Lamson said, but the new flexibility suggests Montana's definition of highly qualified will be adequate. OPI is now gathering additional documentation for the department, he said.
The department could accept Montana's definition, or it could tell the state to implement an additional assessment, he said. But this week's rules make it more likely Montana's standards will be approved, Lamson said.
Jay Eslick, superintendent of Chinook Public Schools, said he thinks it's positive that the requirements are being reviewed.
Before the announcement, he said, some of the district's teachers were planning on going back to school so they could continue to teach.
The very factors that helped them get jobs in past years could have hurt them under the original requirements of No Child Left Behind, he said. For many years, it was "unthinkable" for teachers to come out of college without a broad-field major and a minor, because that made them more employable.
Eslick said that as far as he knows, Chinook High School has five teachers who teach multiple subjects.
This week's announcement just pushes back the deadline, he said. The key will be how the state Office of Public Instruction and the state Board of Public Education will define "highly qualified" for those teachers.
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller, who chairs the state Board of Public Education, said Tuesday that the board will be having "ongoing discussions" with state Superintendent Linda McCulloch about the state's certification process.
"The state of Montana will need to define that," Miller said
He added that HPS has teachers who teach multiple science subjects as well, and that the ruling will give the district more flexibility in dealing with the law's requirements.
Requiring teachers to have a degree, Eslick said, would not improve the quality of instruction in Chinook schools.
"I have teachers who have taught in their minor areas for 15 years," he said, adding that some of them are "exceptional teachers."
Bob Heppner, superintendent of Box Elder Schools, said Wednesday he has three broad-field science teachers and two broad-field social science teachers who teach in grades 7 through 10. Some of the science teachers were going back to school during summers and getting minors so they could get endorsed in the subjects they teach by OPI. Broad-field science teachers went back to school to get a minor during the summers.
Heppner said all of his teachers are endorsed in the subjects they teach, and that he doesn't anticipate a problem with the requirements. But to require a major in each subject, he said, would have been difficult.
The bigger problem, said Box Elder counselor Kevin Barsotti, is the completion requirement of No Child Left Behind. It requires 80 percent of an incoming class to graduate within four years. The state average for Native American students, he said, is about 48 percent.
"There is no way we're going to meet that unless something drastically changes," Barsotti said, adding that he is confident the students will meet the law's testing requirements.
The school has instituted a mentoring program to help keep students from dropping out, he said.
"Maybe they'll loosen up some of the other requirements too," Heppner said.
Nearby at Rocky Boy Schools, superintendent Sandra Murie said the problem isn't finding qualified teachers. It's finding teachers to teach in specialty areas like industrial arts, computer science and special education.
"We've shut down our industrial arts program because we can't find a teacher," she said.
Shirley Isbell, Hill County superintendent of schools, said Wednesday her biggest concern is for teachers who have a credential to teach grades K-8, and teach a subject in middle school that they may not have a strong background in.
Under No Child Left Behind, she said, those teachers would not be able to teach the middle school class, which she said would be "unfair." The extra time schools were granted this week helps, she said.
"Allowing more flex time will give these teachers more opportunity to get the background that the feds think we need in order to continue doing what they've been doing" for many years, she said.
She said the teachers in the three rural school districts in Hill County are certified to teach their subjects. Regardless of the requirements, she said, teachers are constantly getting new training based on students' weaknesses as indicated by test scores.
"They're strengthening what they already have," she said.