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Texas educators vent at feds over teacher test mess

Annoyed at a recent federal ruling that could nullify the credentials of thousands of public school teachers, Texas education advocates want Washington to waive a technicality they say would cause teachers and districts needless headaches.

Annoyed at a recent federal ruling that could nullify the credentials of thousands of public school teachers, Texas education advocates want Washington to waive a technicality they say would cause teachers and districts needless headaches.

At the same time, the Texas Education Agency's original estimate this week that 30,000 teachers would be affected now appears way off — on the high side. And a federal spokeswoman signaled that the state would be given little leeway.

At issue are the credentials of many newly hired elementary teachers, who were told before the school year they met the federal requirements to be considered "highly qualified." But the TEA confirmed Wednesday that U.S. education officials may require that the teachers be stripped of that credential because they didn't take a "generalist" test, in addition to the subject-specific test they passed. The affected teachers likely will have to pay $120 to retake the test before being rehired for next school year.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe gave the estimate of 30,000 teachers on Wednesday, and state Education Commissioner Robert Scott repeated that figure in an interview Thursday. But spot checks with the Houston and Austin school systems yielded less than 30 teachers affected in the two districts, raising questions over the true figure.

Ratcliffe acknowledged Friday that the agency lumped what likely is thousands of secondary teachers into the estimate, when only elementary teachers are affected by the new federal interpretation. The agency still can't say exactly how many teachers are affected because school systems have not yet delivered data on employment for this school year, Ratcliffe said.

The original estimate erred in including every teacher in ten different job classifications last school year, classifications that included teachers in grades four through eight, and six through 12. Moreover, the agency suspects school systems may have had far less teacher turnover this year because of the slumping economy, which could lessen the figure even further because only newly hired teachers are affected.

As they tried to sort out the practical effect of the dustup, Texas union officials ridiculed the new federal interpretation of the rules as rigidly bureaucratic. They cast the episode as one of many examples of the forest-for-the-trees nature of federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which can mire teachers in make-work regulation — making it harder to achieve the law's academic standards.

"This is the kind of thing that drives teachers crazy," said Linda Bridges, president of the Texas arm of the American Federation of Teachers. "... But it's like you've run a race, broken through the ribbon, and then somebody comes to tell you they've moved the finish line."

Asked if having the teachers take and pass the test would make a difference in their classroom performance, Bridges said: "Not really."

Scott, in a brief interview after attending Gov. Rick Perry's speech at a Del Valle high school Thursday morning, said the feds "changed up the rules."

"We disagree with it, and we're asking them to reconsider," Scott said.

Texas school systems, like most nationwide, strive to have all their teachers achieve the highly qualified credential, and often won't hire those who don't. That's in part because of a federal rule that requires schools to send letters to parents of any students taught by a teacher who doesn't meet that standard — letters that may now go out to tens of thousands of Texas parents.

Moreover, the feds require the designation for any teacher hired and paid under certain federally financed programs, including Title I grants aimed at bolstering the education for the underprivileged. In an October 19 federal monitoring report that spotlighted the issue to the TEA, regulators wrote that the agency must submit a plan to ensure "parents are notified... that all teachers hired for Title I positions are highly qualified" as well as those teachers paid with federal class-sized reduction funds.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department said she did not have all the details of the situation Thursday, but cast doubt on whether the feds would grant any leeway to the TEA — or the Texas teachers and school districts most affected.

"I was told this is not a new requirement, that we always told them they had to pass a general state test to be highly qualified," said Jane Glickman. "It's the law. We can't just say, 'Eh, it's not worth it.' Congress makes the laws. We implement the laws."

Several education observers credited the TEA for taking an educationally sound approach to implementing federal guidelines. The reason they didn't require a "generalist" test was simple: The affected teachers are not generalists.

The federal interpretation affects only teachers who teach older elementary students, often in departmentalized situations where the teacher teaches only one subject or type of student. According to the TEA, the interpretation affects only fourth- through eighth-grade teachers in math, science, social studies and reading, and teachers in all grades teaching art, music, theater or special education.

The TEA's approach made sense, and the agency obviously did not intend to run afoul of federal rules, said Joe Bean, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.

"Clearly they want to have 'highly qualified' teachers, for PR if nothing else, but also for the good of students ... This results from a not-so-small army of bureaucrats at 'U.S. Ed.' spending many hours every day complicating the definition of what makes a good teacher."

Officials at both unions, however, said they believed that teachers' jobs would not be in immediate jeopardy, and that they would be rehired next year provided they take and pass the test.

Said Bridges: "All it does is take 120 bucks out of their pocket."

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