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Why is Washington Telling Montana How to Certify Teachers?
WINNETT, Mont., June 20 — It is not easy for rural towns to recruit young teachers like Nicholas Tholt — not when, as in Winnett, the newspaper has stopped printing, the nearest movie theater is 53 miles away and there are only two stores, one saloon and the Kozy Korner Cafe.
But Mr. Tholt settled here last year, partly because the school board sweetened his $19,667 annual salary by offering him a house trailer for $150 a month. Now he is Winnett's one-man social studies program, teaching history, civics, geography and American government in the high school, which has just 33 students. The state says Mr. Tholt is fully certified, and townspeople say he does a darn good job.
But a new federal law challenges his credentials, saying all teachers must have a separate college degree in the field of each major course they teach, or prove through an exam that they are "highly qualified" in that area of study.
Mr. Tholt, who is 25, plans to continue teaching in this gritty town surrounded by cattle ranches and antelope herds on Montana's eastern prairie. But the law is forcing him and thousands of other rural teachers to consider returning to school or moving elsewhere.
"Montana thinks I'm a qualified teacher, but the federal government doesn't agree," he said.
Officials in Helena, Mont., and several other state capitals say the federal law seems intended to shake up big city schools but includes provisions unsuited to the needs of America's sparsely populated regions. They warn that among other pernicious effects, it is likely to accelerate the migration of teachers to urban districts out of struggling communities from Maine to Alaska.
"To tell teachers who barely make $20,000 a year that they have to go back to college — frankly it would be easier for them to retire or move to a state where they could just teach one subject," said Linda McCulloch, Montana's superintendent of public instruction. "This could just throw our educational system into a mess."
The full impact of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, will depend on the flexibility given to rural states in applying its provisions, and so far the Bush administration has sent mixed signals. President Bush frequently describes the law as a triumph of education reform, and state officials report that White House officials have been adamant in refusing to grant waivers.
Education Secretary Rod Paige, who was superintendent of schools in Houston while Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, has also insisted on the strict interpretation of the law. But amid a mounting outcry from rural states, he has seemed willing to bend.
"The law has good things, but it affects us negatively — so I can't imagine there's anybody in rural America that doesn't have problems with it," Gov. Judy Martz of Montana, a Republican, said in an interview.
At a governors' meeting in February, Governor Martz said, she buttonholed Dr. Paige and voiced her complaints. He responded, she said, by telling her, "You're not the only one raising these issues."
Other Republicans from rural states also raised their voices. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, criticized a school choice provision requiring districts to allow students from schools with low test scores to transfer to better schools, at the district's expense.
Senator Stevens called that unreasonable for Alaska, but Dr. Paige stuck by the provision — until he traveled last month with the state's other senator, Lisa Murkowski, to tour schools in the Alaskan bush. After he flew into one village on a Blackhawk helicopter because a plane had foundered in the thawing tundra, he seemed stunned by the "swamplike conditions," Senator Murkowski recalled in an interview.
Dr. Paige later visited a public school on remote St. Lawrence Island, where enforcing the law's choice provision would require flying students to another school 164 miles across the Bering Sea.
"You couldn't have described this situation to us adequately to get the understanding we've gained as a result of seeing it with our own eyes," Dr. Paige said before flying back to Washington, The Associated Press reported. This month, Senator Murkowski announced that the Education Department had agreed to relax the law's requirements for Alaskan schools that are "too isolated to practically offer school choice."
But Susan K. Sclafani, counselor to the secretary of education, noted in an interview that "to its credit" Alaska had not requested a formal waiver from the law, and Maine, which did request a waiver, was turned down. So whether any of the flexibility shown to Alaska will be extended to other rural states remains unclear.
"It's true that it's more of a challenge to implement No Child Left Behind in rural areas," Ms. Sclafani said. "We'll take a look at each state's conditions." But rural states should plan to comply with the law, she said, including its requirements that teachers be "highly qualified" in every core subject they teach.
"We've raised the bar," Ms. Sclafani said. "We have to improve student achievement, and a critical part of low achievement is the lack of preparation of our teachers. You can't teach what you don't know."
Educators praise the law for focusing attention on minority students, and for imposing sanctions on schools where achievement does not improve. But it has aroused tremendous criticism, and not only from rural states. Everywhere, teachers and principals are angry, saying that the law will eventually lead to a majority of America's 90,000 public schools' being labeled low-performing.
In New York, parents say its promise of relief from failing schools is hollow because there are insufficient seats in better schools to accommodate those requesting transfers. Some experts say the law requires too many standardized tests.
Conflict with rural states promises to be especially intense if the Education Department decides to enforce the law's teacher competency rules strictly. In an interview, Doug Christensen, Nebraska's commissioner of education, called those rules "a horrible part of the legislation."
"We have so many schools where one person teaches biology, chemistry, physics and the physical, earth and life sciences," Mr. Christensen said. "This law would make them have a major in each subject — and that's just physically impossible."
In Winnett, Eric Jolma has taught those six courses for nine years. A lanky 34-year-old outdoorsman, he is using the summer to build his own house in the shadow of a towering butte east of town. His degree from Montana State University is in secondary education — broad field science, the major that prepares educators to serve as one-person science departments in small towns.
The federal law could require Mr. Jolma, like Mr. Tholt, to pass new competency tests in all the subjects he teaches or return to college for additional course work — something Mr. Jolma said he simply could not swing on his $25,967 annual salary.
The precise requirements of the law, which is 650 pages long, remain murky to many educators and state officials, and they are awaiting clarification from Washington.
At the Winnett school, a dozen ranch men and women were gathering one evening last week for a school board meeting, preparing to discuss the purchase of a school bus, the wording of a dress code and the hiring of a janitor. Talk turned to the new law.
"The people in Washington making these rules have no concept of what rural Montana is like," said Jolene Shaw, a board member who lives on a ranch east of town.
Chris King, another rancher and a former board member, nodded in agreement. With Winnett's tiny class sizes — this fall the 7th and 11th grades will have just four students each — teachers can develop an intimate understanding of each pupil's academic progress without testing, he said.
"We're not leaving children behind," Mr. King said. "So why don't they just let us alone?"
Before the meeting, Clay Dunlap, Winnett's superintendent and principal, finished rereading several pages of the law, faxed to him by officials in Helena, detailing the new teacher competency requirements.
"I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I can't tell you what this law means," Mr. Dunlap said. "But what's obvious is that Washington doesn't understand the needs of a remote community like ours.
"And that's our concern — this law is one size fits all. Why is Washington telling Montana how to certify teachers?"
New Federal Law May Leave Many Rural Teachers Behind
New York Times
June 23, 2003
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