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Teachers Bristle at Questions About Qualifications

In the span of three months, high school
teacher Michael Dwyer went from being the 2004 Vermont Teacher of the Year to a teacher whose qualifications were being called into question.

In January, state Education Department officials told the Otter Valley Union High School teacher and social studies department chairman that he might not be qualified enough to teach social studies.

"It was one of the greatest ironies of my professional life," said Dwyer, who holds a bachelor's degree from Boston College and a master's from Middlebury College, and has taught in Vermont schools for more than 20 years.

The veteran educator is one of nearly 3,000 teachers across the state whose qualifications to teach under the controversial No Child Left Behind Act were called into question in late January.

Although the federal education department this week delayed the effective date for some rules for teacher qualifications under the law, local educators remain indignant, saying they have met Vermont's stringent teaching qualification standards and shouldn't be subjected to additional provisions.

According to No Child Left Behind, every classroom teacher must be "highly qualified" in all core subjects by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. States that come up with their own plans for implementing the law use teachers' academic records and other factors to determine qualification levels.

Monday, the federal education department extended by one year the time teachers in rural districts will have to meet the law's requirement that they are highly qualified; newly hired teachers would have three years from the day they are hired.

"I think that is welcome news for teachers in this country, but I don't think it goes far enough," said Rich Wise, a South Burlington High School teacher who serves as vice president of the South Burlington Educators Association. "The highly qualified teacher part of No Child Left Behind needs to be dealt with before we can move on and have confidence in this law."

In January, the state Education Department -- which developed its own teacher requirements for implementing No Child Left Behind -- sent letters to 2,800 public school teachers in Vermont, telling them the department did not have enough documentation to determine whether they were highly qualified to teach their subject areas.

The letter to Dwyer said the department was unable to determine whether he was highly qualified to teach social studies because he lacks "recognizable" credits in certain subjects, such as civics and geography.

"When I was at Boston College, I did not have a course called civics or geography," Dwyer said, "and yet, as a history major, geography was embedded in my major."

Dwyer added that three geography credits 20 years ago would get him nowhere as a teacher today, given the dramatic changes that have since taken place in the world.

The state also questioned the qualifications of Dave Bouchard, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Williston Central School.

Bouchard, a nine-year teaching veteran, plans to send the state Education Department copies of his graduate and undergraduate transcripts.

"I know I'm a highly qualified teacher, so these new requirements almost seem not reflective of who's really a highly qualified teacher," Bouchard said.

A Bush administration initiative, No Child Left Behind calls for mandatory, annual testing, requires teachers to be certified in all subject areas they teach, and penalizes schools that don't make adequate yearly progress toward raising test scores. The law's critics say it is inflexible and too hard for states to implement.

Vermont, in creating more qualifications on top of its own stringent licensing requirements, has made the law more complicated and could discourage people from entering a field already suffering from a teacher shortage, Dwyer suggested.

Angelo Dorta, president of the Vermont NEA, agreed.

"If you are licensed in the state and are qualified to teach in your subject area, you are already highly qualified," Dorta said. "Why didn't Vermont simply follow its own plan?"

A message left Wednesday at the state Education Department's licensing division was not immediately returned.

The frustration expressed by Dwyer and Bouchard is not unique among area teachers whose qualifications have been questioned.

"Teachers' reactions have ranged from confusion to anxiety to frustration," Wise said. "They're angry."

Dick Allen, a Williston schools teacher and a union representative to the district that includes Williston, said teachers are looking at the qualifications rules as "a bureaucratic hoop, as opposed to a true measure of teaching expertise."

"The principals who administer over the teachers have a much clearer idea of how well they're doing," Allen said.

The fairness of the qualification rules is not up for debate.

Wise suggested that teachers who received letters should not wait around hoping for a change that might not come.

"My advice to teachers is to contact the licensing office and do what they tell you to do," Wise said. "They should find out what's missing in their file and address that."

Contact Jill Fahy at 660-1898 or jfahy@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com

— Jill Fahy
Burlington Free Press


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