Back to School, for Teachers

Back to School, for Teachers

Tara Curtis had already been teaching mathematics to middle-school students in New Jersey for a year when she was ruled unqualified by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The 2002 federal law requires that all classes be led by teachers officially designated as "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-6 school year (a deadline that was recently extended by a year). Because Ms. Curtis's college major was elementary education, not math, the government no longer considered her prepared to teach the subject.

Ms. Curtis, like thousands of other elementary- and secondary-school teachers nationwide, reacted with a mix of panic, disbelief, and offense.

"I just graduated from college ... and all of a sudden you're telling me that my certificate is no good? That I'm not a valid professional?" she recalls thinking. School districts risk losing federal money if they do not meet the federal standard, and some have said they will fire any teachers who have not achieved "highly qualified" status by a certain time.

One way for Ms. Curtis to become qualified was to go back to Salisbury University, in Maryland, to take enough math courses to add up to the equivalent of an undergraduate major. But doing that would mean a lot of effort with little payoff. She figured that she would need to take courses in advanced theoretical math, for example, which would not be of much help in trying to teach the basics of algebra and geometry to eighth graders.

That's why a new program for practicing math teachers at Rowan University, a public institution in New Jersey, caught her attention. It seeks to help teachers gain "highly qualified" status in math or science with courses in such subjects as algebra and probability taught in the evenings and over the summer with the costs covered with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Rowan is not alone in trying to serve the large market of practicing teachers who need to become qualified in terms of the No Child Left Behind Act. As teachers and principals scramble to meet the federal deadline, education schools have created programs, restructured curricula, and improved advising for former students who are trying to understand how to satisfy requirements that can vary widely from state to state. More broadly, the law has also forced education schools to increase the emphasis on accountability for would-be teachers.

Reaction to the federal law has "really become intensified" this year at education schools, says Linda Distad, an associate dean at the College of St. Catherine and a former president of the Minnesota Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. "We've really had some conversations about what we think is important as far as how we're going to respond."


Teachers say the new programs that have sprouted at colleges in the wake of No Child Left Behind Act have the striking advantage of being immediately applicable in their classrooms. Instead of having to take traditional college-level courses to meet federal guidelines, participating teachers can brush up on content that more closely matches what they are actually teaching.

At Rowan, Ms. Curtis has joined a cohort of 40 students who teach math to middle schoolers in New Jersey. They started their course work this summer, with classes six hours a day, four days a week. During the school year, they attend class on Mondays, from 4:30 to 7 p.m., to finish their third and fourth courses in the series. Next summer they will take their final course during a two-week session.

This semester the teachers are taking a course that focuses on showing their students how to understand patterns associated with basic algebra. Each class begins with a game that the teachers can play with their students, which involves taking turns picking numbers from 1 to 6 and adding each new number to the previous sum; the winner is the player who reaches 50 first. (The middle schoolers, one would hope, will be more gracious losers than some of the teachers, who sit down in frustration before Eric Milou, an associate professor of mathematics, can say, "You lose.")

The teachers sit at tables equipped with tools not often seen in a college math course: brightly colored plastic shapes, like red trapezoids and green triangles, that form what Mr. Milou calls "walls" and "doors." When he presents a simple problem to solve, involving the number of "doors" in a given "wall," some teachers quickly reach for the shapes, eager to fit them together to replicate the red-green-red-green pattern that he has drawn on the board.


At Salisbury University a state grant was used to create a master's degree in math education in 2002. The program received a lot of interest at first. But as states developed ways for teachers to become "highly qualified" through a point system that gives them credit for years of teaching, professional-development courses, and time spent serving as mentors to reach highly-qualified status, the interest in course work "sort of tapered off," says Dennis A. Pataniczek, dean of the school of education.

In addition to the point system and additional course work, teachers can also become "highly qualified" in the subject they teach with a passing score, determined by their respective states, on an approved standardized test.

Despite the new programs, it is unclear if the federal requirements have led to the current rise in enrollments at education schools. Because teachers often take their requisite math or science courses through other schools at an institution, there is no easy way to track any possible enrollment increase. Some experts note that college course work is often the most challenging way to meet the federal standards, which state that "highly qualified" teachers must have a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution, be fully certified by the state, and demonstrate knowledge of the subject they teach.

Nor has the requirement seemed to have caused a boom in enrollment at for-profit insitutions, despite the focus of several of them on teacher education. Since critieria for "highly qualified" status differ by state, many for-profit institutions, which are national in scope, have not been able to readily capitalize on the opportunity.

"It's really hard for a national university" to capture a large share of the market in this teacher-education niche, says Harry McLenighan, interim dean of the school of education at Capella University, an online, for-profit institution. Such colleges have a harder time assuring students that courses will satisfy their state or school-district requirements than do universities with state-specific programs. Capella offers only a few courses that would help teachers meet the federal standard, he says.

One national, for-profit institution that is trying for a piece of the market is Kaplan University. In mid-2005 it altered some elements of its master's of arts in teaching and learning to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. John LaNear, vice president for education and nursing, said officials there believe that the degree now satisfies the "highly qualified" requirements of most states. About 400 students are enrolled in Kaplan's online program, up from 180 in August 2005.


Still, the No Child Left Behind Act has changed education schools in substantial ways. Officials of teacher-preparation programs have had to rethink and sometimes restructure their general curricula.

Many institutions now require that students majoring in education have a dual major or a minor in a liberal-arts subject. That sets up graduates to meet the federal guidelines, which specify that anyone who teaches a "core academic subject," like English or biology, must demonstrate knowledge of that field. Middle-school teachers and special-education teachers have been among the most affected. Many of them majored in elementary education or special education and have had to take additional steps to prove subject-matter competence.

Some education schools already required that their students have dual majors. But now, under No Child Left Behind, the schools ask students to choose secondary majors that apply to what they want to teach. This has often resulted in a narrowing of academic options for aspiring teachers. At Rowan, for example, education majors used to be able to choose from among 20 dual majors.

In 2003 the list of acceptable dual majors was trimmed to nine, with such subjects as art, music, psychology, and sociology falling by the wayside. The list now reads like a middle-school student's class schedule, covering just the basics ? English, geography, Spanish, math.

In addition to catering to No Child Left Behind's requirement for high teacher quality, education schools have also responded to the philosophy of accountability that the act prescribes.

Suellen Meara, dean of the School of Education at Trinity University, in Washington, says the emphasis on stringent evaluation of students that was triggered by the federal law has risen from elementary schools to high schools and now to education schools.

"We are truly a standards-driven institution now," she says. Just as elementary schools must demonstrate that their third graders can read, education schools must demonstrate that their graduates can teach.

To do so, the schools have tried to follow graduates into practice and collect data on their achievement levels, says Sharon P. Robinson, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. "There has been an intense effort in schools of education to design data systems that allow them to effectively monitor the impact that their programs are having on student learning," she says.


In a new master's-degree program at Rowan, rather than resist the federal government's demand for data ? numbers to prove that teachers are qualified, that students are learning, that schools are improving ? teachers can learn to use data collection to their benefit, says D. Mark Meyers, associate dean of the College of Education and one of the architects of the program.

The master's-degree students, all practicing teachers, choose research projects that relate to their classrooms ? for example, "Why did the majority of my students perform so poorly on the state test?" or "How can I get parents to show up at teacher conferences?" They then create an experimental design and collect data from their classes to answer their questions.

Mr. Meyers compares the program to karate, in that it takes negative energy and turns it into a positive outcome. Rowan's program is a way of "applying martial arts to No Child Left Behind," he says, by channeling the federal and state pressure on teachers into helping them understand research methods.

But in confronting No Child Left Behind, what many teachers appear to need is a well-informed sensei. With each state setting its own definition of "highly qualified" and its own route to achieving that status, many teachers have struggled to make sense of what is required of them.

Although the federal legislation clearly outlines the requirements for new teachers, it gives the states freedom to devise their own ways for veteran teachers to demonstrate expertise in their subjects. That freedom allowed states, in the three years following the legislation's enactment, to craft the point systems that provide an alternative to going back to college to become "highly qualified."

Advisers at education schools say they have had to guide many uncertain alumni through the requirements. Often that just means helping the teachers assemble proof of the point-earning activities they have engaged in.

The point system's emphasis on paperwork rather than demonstrating subject-matter knowledge is misguided, says Kate Walsch, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit organization that advocates changes in federal, state, and local regulations to increase the number of effective teachers. States with point systems, she says, are failing to engage the real intention of the federal requirement, which is "to address what Congress perceived was a lack of attention to what teachers know."

Ms. Walsch helped write a 2004 report on states' responses to the No Child Left Behind Act. The title, "Searching the Attic," refers to her criticism of the way many veteran teachers proved subject competency: by sorting through old documents rather than demonstrating real ability.

She describes the range of approaches that states have taken to put the federal law into place. Colorado's standards for becoming "highly qualified" are especially tough, with no option for establishing subject knowledge other than through a test or course work. A few other states ? Alabama, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Maryland, and Hawaii ? require that all teachers hold at least a minor in the subject they teach.

But most states take a more lenient approach, allowing teachers to become "highly qualified" through a rubric that awards points for benchmarks that often have nothing to do with knowledge of the subject they teach. Those states, according to Ms. Walsch's report, have "gutted the law's opportunity to achieve meaningful reform."

The federal government has acknowledged weaknesses in the systems of assigning points to veteran teachers, and has urged states to phase out their use.

Most of the states that let teachers take standardized tests to meet federal requirements rely on the Praxis II, a content-specific test that is administered by the Educational Testing Service for about $100 per test-taker. The number of people taking the Praxis II has jumped from about 196,000 in 2001, the year that President Bush proposed the No Child Left Behind Act, to about 268,000 this year, according to figures provided by the Educational Testing Service.

So why would teachers take a year of college courses when they can skip straight to the final exam? For some there are financial incentives: earning a master's degree often puts teachers in a higher pay bracket, and grants from the federal government can offset the cost. Course work, unlike tests, can also count toward renewing their certification, which teachers must do every few years.

But most policy experts agree that the path of least resistance to become "highly qualified" does not pass through college classrooms. It is the innovative programs and new attitudes toward accountability that have spun out of the No Child Left Behind provisions, not the provisions themselves, that bring experienced teachers such as Ms. Curtis and her peers back to campuses.

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Date Published: Friday, October 6, 2006 - 01:00