Originally created 02/03/03

Teachers studying their subjects to meet new guidelines



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- New federal guidelines that require teachers to be "highly qualified" in their core subject areas is sending some them back to study the subjects they are teaching.

A provision of the federal No Child Left Behind law requires teachers demonstrate competency in their subject areas either by earning a college degree in the field, passing a content test or passing a classroom evaluation by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

For teachers, failing a content test, college course or classroom evaluation could mean losing their jobs. That's because, to make up for a shortage of teachers, some have been allowed to work without full certification.

Several of the state's strategies for filling teacher shortages no longer will meet the federal government's standards for teacher quality.

The biggest adjustment for South Carolina will be the requirement that teachers be certified in the subject they teach. Now, teachers can be given waivers to teach in other fields, depending on a district's needs.

The state does not know how many teachers have the waivers because it stopped compiling that information in 1993 to save money. Now, the state is requiring districts to provide that information again.

"Most (teachers) think that if they're certified to teach (in any field), then they're highly qualified," said Janice Poda, who heads the state education department's teacher quality division. "One of the dilemmas is, we've told them for years that you're certified to teach in South Carolina. But now, we're saying you may not be."

State and local officials say the waivers have helped alleviate teacher shortages and given districts more flexibility with staffing, particularly in rural areas.

"I do think that a competent person can, for a short time, take students successfully through content that's not (the teacher's) primary area," said Hope Spillane, an English teacher at Spring Valley High School and president of the South Carolina Council of Teachers of English.

But the federal government disagrees, and the state has two years to stop granting the waivers.

Critics say the requirements are an insult to veteran teachers who will have to prove they are qualified to do their jobs and say the law's focus on content knowledge neglects the importance of knowing how to teach.

"From my perspective, in order to be a really effective teacher, you have to have a handle on both," said Les Sternberg, dean of the University of South Carolina's College of Education.

But Barnett Berry, executive director of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C., said it's time to stop allowing teachers to teach with waivers.

"If we keep putting in front of students teachers who are less experienced, students will be left with nothing but a revolving door of unqualified teachers," he said.