Sunday, November 22, 2009

State's teacher policy had been federally approved, education chief says

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
Friday, October 30, 2009

AUSTIN – Education officials in the Bush administration formally approved the testing requirements for Texas teachers that have now come under fire from the Obama administration, Texas' education chief said in a letter to federal officials released Thursday.

Education Commissioner Robert Scott said the state's current policy for designating teachers as "highly qualified" – a mandate under the No Child Left Behind law – was approved by the U.S. Department of Education in 2006 and has remained in effect since then because of that approval.

"The new interpretation of highly qualified ... is a very different interpretation from the understanding conveyed by the [federal] department over the past eight years," Scott said.

"Neither I nor my staff are aware of any written guidance or regulation to support this abrupt change in implementation of an eight-year-old statute."

This month, the federal agency determined that thousands of Texas elementary school teachers hired this year did not meet the definition of highly qualified because they didn't pass a "generalist" exam testing knowledge in reading, math, writing, science and social studies.

Most new teachers passed only a certification exam in a specific subject, which the state – backed by the Bush administration – said was sufficient to be licensed as a teacher. Teachers also must pass a separate pedagogy and professional responsibilities exam.

The report from the Department of Education found the state in violation of federal law and said Texas had to submit a plan to meet the testing requirements. State officials have estimated that as many as 30,000 teachers may have to pass the test to keep their jobs.

Scott said the state is ready to change its requirements to comply with the federal directive but must have time to phase in the changes.

"The changes necessary to meet the proposed findings do appear to be possible and could be implemented over several years with appropriate provisions to transition existing teachers," the commissioner said.

Scott said the state "strenuously objects" to a major policy change being required on a retroactive basis.

"The findings have been proposed at a time when hundreds of thousands of Texas teachers have already been assigned to classrooms for this school year," his letter said.

"Additional tens of thousands of college and alternative preparation programs will now discover that their course of study may not have prepared them for the current interpretation of the statute."

A spokesman for the Education Department has said that the requirements are not new and reflect a direct reading of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Federal officials have asked the state to come up with a plan to notify affected parents that their child is not being taught by a highly qualified teacher and to ensure no federal Title I funds are being spent on teachers who aren't qualified.

The plan must also indicate how the state will make sure all teachers meet federal guidelines in the future.

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