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Target of 100 percent ‘highly qualified’ teachers still far from reach

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

An important deadline laid out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, aimed at insuring teacher quality, is now just 15 months away.

But for the Philadelphia School District, this requirement that all public school teachers in core academic subjects meet standards as “highly qualified” by June 2006 appears to be even further from reach than previously reported, based on recently released data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

According to the state’s report “Highly Qualified Teachers in Pennsylvania,” only 85 percent of Philadelphia public school teachers in 2003-04 satisfied the state’s definition of “highly qualified.” That compares to a state report that 90 percent of School District teachers were “highly qualified” in the 2002-03 school year.

Statewide, about 97 percent of Pennsylvania public school teachers meet the state’s standard for “highly qualified” teachers.

The drop in Philadelphia’s percentage of “highly qualified” teachers, in the midst of a major District push on teacher recruitment and retention, appears to reflect a more thorough application of the standards by the state in 2003-04. This resulted in a determination that many Philadelphia middle school teachers in seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms lack a certification demonstrating their content-area expertise.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education commented, “For the 2003-04 Highly Qualified Teacher Report, middle school teachers needed to have their Mid-Level Certification in order to be considered ‘highly qualified.’” This standard was not applied last year, she explained.

The state offers a middle grades certification in English, math, science and social studies for those teaching grades seven to nine.

Teacher workforce shows improvement

Despite the reported decrease in the percentage of “highly qualified” teachers in Philadelphia, evidence suggests that the qualifications of Philadelphia School District teachers are actually improving, says local researcher Ruth Curran Neild, who has also just completed a study of teacher quality in Philadelphia.

Neild, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, observed that the overall percentage of certified teachers in Philadelphia rose slightly in 2003-04, to just below 90 percent.

She also said there has been a “dramatic decline” in the percentage of emergency permit teachers in middle schools last year — teachers who have a bachelor’s degree but have not passed all their licensing exams. Growing portions of Philadelphia middle school teachers are at least “intern-certified,” Neild said. This means they have passed basic skills exams and a test in any content areas they are teaching and are enrolled in a teacher certification program – though they may be lacking education coursework and classroom experience.

In Pennsylvania, to be deemed “highly qualified” according to NCLB, a teacher does not have to be “fully certified” – that is, to have completed all teacher preparation coursework and passed licensing exams in the appropriate content area and grade level. Teachers who are "intern-certified" can also be considered "highly qualified" in Pennsylvania.

But certification is only part of the picture. The state determines whether teachers are “highly qualified” by looking at whether their certification is appropriate to their classroom assignment.

One of the big stumbling blocks for teachers in Philadelphia and other urban districts is that middle and high school teachers (including special education) must either achieve a passing score in each of the academic subjects they teach or have a graduate degree or undergraduate academic major in these subjects.

In Philadelphia, most certified middle school teachers have elementary (K-6) certification and have not passed tests in the subject area or areas they teach.

Neild commented, “There are relatively few teachers in middle schools with secondary subject-area certifications that would automatically make them highly qualified, assuming they were assigned to teach the subject in which they were certified.”

Philadelphia’s middle school teachers have also been passing the state licensing exams for their middle school content areas at disappointingly low rates.

Pennsylvania has created the “Bridge Certificate Program,” allowing some experienced teachers (in middle schools, alternative schools, special education, and English as a second language) to be deemed highly qualified in subjects without passing a content test or having a college major in these subjects. The bridge certificate gives teachers three years to earn points toward a permanent certification for factors including experience, course work, professional development, and writing articles.

“We’re talking to principals and regional superintendents about reminding teachers of this possibility,” said Tomas Hanna, the District’s senior vice president of human resources. But he noted that simply passing the state’s Praxis exam is “an easier requirement for teachers to get through.” The District offers free Praxis test preparation courses for teachers.

Hanna mentioned several other initiatives to keep improving the quality of the teacher workforce, including marketing the District to prospective teachers, attracting student teachers, and offering positions to new teachers earlier in the year.

“The new teachers’ contract with its site-based selection provision will be helpful as well,” he noted. The provision allows schools to interview and select teachers for many openings, rather than using a centralized teacher assignment process.

‘Quest for quality’

Neild said the story of Philadelphia’s troubles is one that could be told about many urban districts, including others like Philadelphia that have made efforts to upgrade their workforce in response to the requirements of NCLB.

Neild’s report, co-authored by Betsey Useem and Elizabeth Farley and titled “Quest for Quality: Recruiting and Retaining Teachers in Philadelphia,” is scheduled to be released this month. Neild and Useem have previously reported on the shortage of qualified teachers in Philadelphia schools that serve mostly high poverty populations and students of color.

In their upcoming report, the authors write, “Given Philadelphia’s difficulties in attracting and retaining seventh and eighth grade teachers who have any type of certification, we are skeptical that Philadelphia will be able to meet the NCLB requirements for ‘highly qualified’ teachers in the middle grades, despite the District’s evident will to comply with the letter and spirit of the legislation.”

They go on to say that the continued high rate of teacher turnover among middle school teachers would makes it difficult for the District to maintain 100 percent “highly qualified” status among its teachers even if it were somehow able to achieve that status.

Troubling data from the state

The most recent state report on “highly qualified” teachers shows that 26 Philadelphia public schools – less than one in ten – had a staff that was 100 percent “highly qualified” in 2003-04.

But at 56 District schools, one-fourth or more of the teaching staff fell short of the criteria for “highly qualified” teachers. Of those 56 schools, 39 were middle schools, representing nearly all the middle schools in the District.

At Shoemaker Middle School in West Philadelphia, only 38 percent of the staff was considered highly qualified in 2003-04, and at Vaux in North Philadelphia the figure was 48 percent. At seven other middle schools, highly qualified teachers made up only 50 to 55 percent of the staff. Three of the lowest-rated schools – Vaux, Rhodes, and Sayre – are middle schools undergoing a conversion to high schools.

The schools with the poorest results for “highly qualified” teachers are schools that have struggled for years with high teacher turnover. This group of schools includes several middle schools run by education management organizations – Edison, Victory, and Foundations – that were also troubled by heightened teacher turnover after they were privatized in 2002.

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