November 27 — 12:00 am, 2003

5 Things to Know: About every child’s right to a highly qualified teacher

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law by President Bush, mandates that all public school teachers, including teachers in charter schools, be "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-06 school year. The law promises funding for programs that improve teacher quality, with priority given to schools from high-poverty districts. Here are some of the law’s implications concerning teachers in Philadelphia.

1. By 2006, every teacher in Pennsylvania must have a college degree and be state-certified or enrolled in an alternative route certification program.

A "highly qualified teacher" is defined as a teacher who holds a bachelor’s degree, has demonstrated knowledge of the subject that he or she actually teaches, and is either fully certified or completing a Teacher Intern certification program. A teacher who is certified in biology but has been assigned to teach physics is not "highly qualified."

The Philadelphia School District has a long way to go if it is to achieve NCLB’s goal of having all teachers "highly qualified" by 2006. The percentage of Philadelphia teachers who are state-certified dropped steadily over the last four years, from 93 percent in 1999-00 to 88.5 percent in 2002-03, and certification rates are lower in poor and minority neighborhood schools.

2. Parents now have the "right to know" the qualifications of their child’s teachers.

NCLB says that each year parents must receive a notice telling them how they can get information about teachers’ qualifications. According to a School District notice mailed to parents this fall, Philadelphia parents may call their principals office with questions about teacher qualifications. The school must also notify parents whenever their child has been taught for four consecutive weeks or more by a teacher who is not "highly qualified."

While NCLB does not say clearly what parents can do if a teacher is not highly qualified, it at least gives parents information that was previously not available – and they may be able to use that information to demand changes from the school or District administration.

3. Certification is one gauge of whether a teacher is qualified for classroom teaching.

Teacher certification is not a guarantee of quality. But fully certified teachers have passed required state tests, indicating some minimum proficiency.

Certification also shows that a teacher has had supervised experience working in the classroom and has completed courses in teaching methods and in the subject area he or she is teaching. It means the teacher received training in important teaching skills such as planning a lesson or identifying a learning disability. An emergency-certified teacher or a teacher with an Intern certificate may not have had all these experiences.

It is important to look at the teaching staff of the school as a whole. If a school has a number of teachers who are not fully certified, it is a warning sign that the school may have a problem with high teacher turnover, making it more difficult to create a strong academic program. High turnover schools may have problems filling vacancies and may not have enough experienced teachers to mentor newer ones.

4. In Philadelphia, low-performing schools, often in low-income neighborhoods, have lower percentages of highly qualified teachers.

Philadelphia School District officials acknowledge they need to do more to ensure that highly qualified teachers are fairly distributed throughout the District.

Philadelphia has problems attracting new qualified teachers and retaining them once they are here. Teachers are lured away by higher salaries and what are perceived as better working conditions in the suburbs. Teacher turnover is especially high in poor neighborhoods and in schools serving mostly students of color.

CEO Paul Vallas says the recruitment and retention of qualified teachers is a priority and has supported new incentives to attract qualified teachers. Student teachers now receive a $1,000 stipend from the District, and their cooperating teacher receives a $1,000 stipend if the District hires the student teacher. Also, tuition reimbursements of $1,000 per year are now offered to teachers.

Other states and cities are moving aggressively to correct inequalities in low-performing schools and recruit more qualified teachers to teach in them. New York offers a $10,000 annual bonus, for up to three years, to teachers willing to teach in low-performing schools. California is offering college loan forgiveness for teachers who work in low-performing schools, and is helping teachers with housing down payments.

5. Help is available in understanding how NCLB affects your family.

Parents, students, and others seeking information about NCLB can contact the Education Law Center (ELC), a nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all of Pennsylvania’s children have access to a quality public education.

ELC will soon be launching a special NCLB section on its website (www.elc-pa.org), with fact sheets on parents’ "right to know" and other NCLB requirements, and reports on what Pennsylvania is doing to implement the law. You can also call the Education Law Center’s HelpLine at 215-238-6970.

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