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Reading, 'Riting and Ridiculous

'No Child Left Behind' law requires instructors to be highly qualified in their subjects. But in rural schools with three teachers, that's unlikely.

March 23, 2003|Dan Joling | Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — If President Bush's new school standards had taken effect this year, Principal Andy Haviland of White Mountain School would be in trouble. And he'd have plenty of company in rural Alaska.

Starting in fall 2005, core classes in public schools must be taught by "highly qualified" teachers. By federal definition, high school teachers must hold a college degree in the subjects they teach, demonstrate proficiency through experience, or pass a test that indicates an expert's grasp of their subject.

Trouble is, many rural Alaska schools have three teachers -- or less. Unless the schools can find "superteachers" who can demonstrate proficiency in multiple topics, Alaska will be out of compliance and in danger of losing federal education money.

The school in White Mountain, 63 miles east of Nome on the Iditarod Trail in western Alaska, has just 74 students, from kindergarten through high school. The school has two high school teachers and one middle school teacher certified in language arts, science and math -- but not in history, civics, arts, geography or other core curricula.

"With a staff this small and a requirement to teach that many things, I don't know how they expect people to meet them," Haviland said.

Alaska education officials have been wrestling with the law for more than a year.

"Since January 2001, it's been basically driving the lives of everyone in the department," said Eric Madsen, state administrator for federal Title I funds, earmarked for students from low-income backgrounds.

Alaska receives $41 million in Title I money, part of $63 million in federal dollars for education.

The "No Child Left Behind" law comes with so many rules that two states, Nebraska and Vermont, have discussed opting out of the requirement, Madsen said. Alaska agrees with the intent of the law, but says it needs help in implementing it.

No Child Left Behind was passed out of concern that the current system has not worked equally well for students -- working least well for children who don't come from mainstream America. One assumption of the law is those who teach outside their area of expertise may not have a command of the subject.

According to the federal government's No Child Left Behind Web site, the law gives states and districts flexibility to find innovative ways to improve teacher quality, such as giving experienced professionals the means to become teachers faster, awarding merit pay to encourage good teachers to stay in the profession, and authorizing bonuses to teachers in high-need subject areas such as math and science.

But the size and far-flung distribution of Alaska's schools does not lend itself to one-size-fits-all education reform. Of the state's 506 schools, 135 have fewer than 50 students. Twenty percent of Alaska's schools -- 100 -- have three or fewer teachers. Educators say it's unlikely that they could meet the federal provisions as written.

"It's not impossible," Haviland said. "Improbable, yes."

In discussions with their federal counterparts, state officials have suggested an exception to the rules about what makes a teacher highly qualified. In schools with three teachers or less, the state wants to let staff teach some classes even if they have only an academic minor in the subject. The state would still require those teachers to have a major in the subject they spend most of their time teaching.

Even that would be an imperfect system. In a school with four teachers, Madsen said, lining up teachers with complementary majors and minors to cover eight core subjects would be difficult.

Finding teachers who want to work in rural districts is already a challenge for districts such as the Bering Strait District, which oversees the school in White Mountain and 14 other villages.

For now, spokesman Harry Gamble said, the Department of Education is telling districts to continue to hire the best, most highly qualified teachers they can find and not to fire anyone based on the federal rules.

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