ILWACO - A blessing in disguise? School districts large and small across the country are weighing the benefits and the drawbacks of a new law that will help pay to have the best teachers possible for students - but at the same time possibly harm those schools that can't live up to those standards.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) - a sweeping reform law signed by President Bush in January 2002 - makes more federal dollars available for K-12 education, but holds educators accountable for failures in teaching those students. The law aims to place a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom in the nation by 2006.
School districts in cities and suburban areas should have a fairly easy time living up to the law because their secondary-school (junior/senior high schools) programs are big enough to hire teachers who specialize in individual fields of study. However, the legislation could end up being especially hard on smaller, rural districts where teachers handle a wide range of subjects.
The Ocean Beach School District (OBSD) is one of those such districts where most educators teach more then just one course of study. As the rules of NCLB goes, every teacher must be state certified in the specific subject that they are teaching. If a teacher who is not highly qualified in a subject instructs such a class for more then four weeks, the district is required to notify the parents of the students in that class of the situation.
"Do we have some of those situations?" asked OBSD Superintendent Tom Lockyer recently, "Yes."
He said that Ilwaco High School has had a few long-term substitutes teaching outside of their certified areas for most of the year due to illnesses and medical reasons.
"Sometimes you have emergency situations," said Lockyer.
The school had a staff member that resigned early in the school year, and the position was subsequently filled with a sub. That sub was put on full time to keep continuity within that class for the rest of the year.
"He was out of his endorsed area," said Lockyer, but added that they had informed the state of the situation. "There's some compliance issues that ensure that not only do our parents know ... our students know and the state is aware of those. But those are very few."
"I know it's our goal to have every teacher certified and qualified to teach the subject that they're teaching," said OBSD Chairman Ed Guelfi. "Being in a rural district, sometimes it's difficult to get substitutes in those kind of things and you have to do with what you have to do with."
In instances like that, the state requires that the district notify them that they have teachers in those positions. They are then placed on a plan of improvement.
"Not because they've done anything wrong," said Lockyer, "just to get them to the levels they need to be in, in the event that they may become a permanent employee of the district."
He added that in these cases, they have notified the parents of the students in those classes.
"Sometimes rather then a direct letter, often times we'll notify them in terms of our newsletters," he said.
OBSD still has two long-term subs in place right now at the high school. One is in special education, and the other is teaching science. Lockyer assured that everyone teaching a course in the district is properly certified in their particular areas, aside from those two cases.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in Washington is in the process of recommending to the federal government the criteria of what will make up a "highly qualified" teacher in this state. When accepted, they would most likely begin enforcing those criteria for teachers already working by the start of next school year. Those hired this school year must already be up to those standards.
In some cases at the high school, the teachers instructing a course only have a generalized teaching certificate. Many of these instuctors received their teaching credentials at a time prior to the current standards in which specific subjects are certified and only have a limited amount of time before they have to be re-certified.
For example, one teacher at IHS, who teaches three different subjects, received her teaching certification in 1979. It is a generalized certification for elementary and secondary education and never expires. While another teacher, who also teaches three subjects, is certified in all of the individual subjects and has to be re-certified every few years.
Lockyer said that the older certifications were "grandfathered-in" during past negotiations with the teachers union. It allows them to teach any content or subject area in both elementary or secondary education.
"I'm assuming that the state is going to have to deal with some of those," he said.
He went on to say that at this point, the district has received no guidance in terms of how to deal with teachers who have those certifications.
"Obviously the No Child Left Behind [act] is somewhat specific," he said. "So as we move through transition from what was and what now is, we're going to make sure that those staff people have the courses that we feel are appropriate for them to teach."
OSPI, in their criteria for a teacher not new to the education system says that "highly qualified" means that they must hold a state teaching certificate and have at least bachelor's degree. They must also qualify in one of three areas as well: Either having a national board certification in a core academic subject that he/she is assigned to teach, or be state endorsed in the core academic subject. For people without an endorsed certificate, they must have a degree, a major or equivalent of a major in that area or have satisfactory evaluations.
In regards to this, Guelfi said, "for the teachers that have been there for a long time ... it's difficult to get those people to go back to training."
He cited the fact that more teachers in OBSD have Masters degrees then in other district in surrounding areas.
"Just because the federal government at the last minute decides to change the way the certificates are awarded, it's hard to tell somebody with a Masters degree in education that they need to go and get re-certified for something," he said.
"If that's what the federal government wants us to do, we're certainly going to do it. I just wouldn't say that we're going to jump right on it this board meeting, or this week, or this month. I would much rather work with our staff and say, 'what do you want to do?' Those people are the educational professionals. They took this on as a career. They need to know that if they take these ... certifications, it's only going to help them."
And there is incentive for teachers who get specific certifications that doesn't just help them with school books - but also their pocket books.
A combination of years in service and number of specific certifications equals more money for the teachers. This is broken down through a salary matrix, which is part of the contract between the district and the teachers. For example, a teacher with a degree, plus a certification, plus five years of service will make a little less then $2,000 more a year then a teacher with the same length of service but without the specific certification.
At this point, it would be up to the district to require that all teachers have modern certifications. Lockyer said that the board would have to enact a policy that would explain the expectations and time frame in which to have it implemented by.
"Then it would be incumbent upon the district's negotiating team to make sure that we don't have contract language that is contrary to that goal," he said. "And that eventually the contract language recognizes that goal."
"I don't know if we're going to have any real hard, firm changes in the near future," said Guelfi. "The only thing I can say is that the No Child Left Behind Act is something that comes down from the federal government, and we can not ignore it. We can't just brush it under the rug. We are going to have to deal with that in the future."
When asked if he felt it would be a good idea for the district to pursue a course of action along those lines, Lockyer said, "Without a doubt, absolutely."
"I think if as professionals in education we truly believe that our education is what best fits us to impart that information to students ... we should be asking ourselves to have the highest level of education in those areas that we can."
Guelfi added that they would most likely wait until contract negotiations to address the issue.
"I don't want to say that it's not important, because it obviously is important. I don't think we have a big problem with it. We don't have a large staff mix of unqualified teachers."
Lockyer added that one thing that could be affected immediately regarding the act are those negotiations with teachers for a new contract.
"You don't just say, 'you're not certified so you no longer work here,'" he said. "We obviously have to work through those issues as we try to meet the guidelines."
The current contract expires at the start of the next school year.
Lockyer added that during contract negotiations with teachers, that they also stress the fact that they want to have teachers placed in their correct areas.
"And that's obviously what the feds are telling us to do if we want to maintain those federal dollars that we receive."
Lockyer explained that today when hiring new teachers, the district looks for candidates with the proper qualifications.
"Those are the kinds of things that No Child Left Behind are going to force, and justifiably."
In the past, and especially in rural based school districts, Lockyer said, people liked to see more broad-based experience, so that a teacher would be able to instruct many different levels and courses. The new certification mandate of NCLB has made it harder for rural school districts like OBSD to hire new teachers.
"Larger districts ... they're in populated areas that are attractive to anybody. They have budget authority that is much greater then ours, so they have the flexibility. We're most definitely challenged."
In a district like OBSD where they have to offer a set number of courses, it is hard within their set budget to afford teachers specializing in all of them.
When asked if the rules of NCLB weren't in place if OBSD could get by with "floating" teachers into other areas that they weren't necessarily certified in, Lockyer said, "My hope would be, professionally, that we don't try and do that. Will the need ... and does the need occur?" he asked, "It does. In a small school, could you end up with somebody out of certification for a longer period of time? Yeah, absolutely. Is No Child Left Behind going to solve all of that? I would guess that there's probably going to be some school districts that will take slaps on the hands until the money's withdrawn. But at this point in time, I don't know whether they'll be able to comply."