Education reform complicates job of matching teachers with coursesLittle-known aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind Act - the education reform law signed by President Bush in January 2002 - will soon begin having big consequences for small school districts like those here in Pacific County.

The act's underlying goal is laudable: assuring American children receive a good education no matter where they live. However, the federalization of school policies and governance can create tremendous hardships unless the act is seriously modified within the coming year.

In a revealing recent article, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer explored some of the pitfalls of this mighty shift to the federal bureaucracy of decisions until now left to local school boards and administrators. A story in today's Observer looks at the act's impacts on Ocean Beach School District; other districts in the county may suffer even more effects.

The act's centerpiece is the requirement all classes must be taught by "highly qualified" teachers. States and districts that comply receive additional federal dollars, while those that fail face loss of federal aid now targeted at helping economically disadvantaged students.

To be highly qualified, the law says, a teacher must hold a bachelor's degree and state certification and demonstrate thorough knowledge of the subject matter taught. According to the Post-Intelligencer, an undergraduate major in the subject is proof of that knowledge; otherwise, the teacher must pass a "high objective uniform state standard of evaluation" - that is, a test.

Large districts with many teachers can comply relatively easily by making certain only teachers with the appropriate major teach courses. If they lack a staff teacher for a particular subject, they probably will have little problem finding a qualified candidate among the urban population.

Smaller districts in remote places have a much different situation. The districts in our coastal counties have always stretched their teaching staffs by having them juggle responsibilities. Everyone who has ever attended a small school has, for example, learned history from someone who majored in English, or art from a P.E. major. Under the new law, this must soon end.

Even now, districts are supposed to mail letters to parents warning them anytime their child is taught by someone not "highly qualified" in the subject matter, and all new teachers paid in part by federal Title I grant money must be "highly qualified." By the end of the 2005-06 school year, every teacher must be highly qualified if they teach in the many fields covered by the law.

According to another new federal requirement, all teacher aides must either have two years of college or pass a rigorous test.

Considered together, these rules mean some of our schools are likely to be confronted with loss of federal funding, direct intervention by the states and other steps that will disrupt education and distract educators from their jobs.

It's possible new state qualification tests will qualify at least some veteran teachers in areas outside their majors. But we can't count on that, and also should be pushing for changes in the act. The same cookie-cutter approach shouldn't be applied to small districts as to giant ones.

As with other laws pushed through by this administration, this is an interesting case of a supposedly conservative Republican cramming federal burdens onto states and local boards. Everyone's for educational excellence. But we shouldn't permit the federal government to dictate how we achieve it.

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