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No Child Law "Bridge" Is Planned

Some Pennsylvania teachers would have an alternative to certification tests. Critics say it lacks rigor.

HARRISBURG - A state Board of Education committee yesterday passed rules that will allow some experienced teachers to become "highly qualified" under the federal No Child Left Behind law without passing a content test in their subject, as is now required.

The full board is expected to give its final approval today to this alternative system, called a "bridge" certificate, for teachers to demonstrate content knowledge, despite pleas from advocates for disadvantaged and special-education students that the alternative system lacks rigor.

"This could undermine the very meaning of 'highly qualified' teacher in No Child Left Behind and deprive our students of having teachers with the rich content knowledge they need," said Liza Herzog of the research group Philadelphia Education Fund. It could be "academically fatal... for students at risk."

The rules primarily affect seventh- and eighth-grade teachers with elementary, or general, certifications who teach English, math, science or social studies.

In Philadelphia, where most middle school teachers are elementary certified, more than half who took subject-matter Praxis tests during the last school year did not pass them. Two-thirds failed the math exam needed for the "highly qualified" certification.

Statewide, nearly one-quarter of such teachers failed subject-matter tests. State officials said they might be able to update those figures today.

The rules could affect up to 20,000 teachers statewide, including 1,000 in Philadelphia.

State board members and Department of Education officials said the alternative bridge certificate could be more difficult for teachers than passing a test.

"I'm baffled how any individual would oppose the flexibility and rigor established so far with regard to this alternative," said board member Larry Wittig.

Constance Davis, a member of the state board who is a former teacher and the parent of children with special needs, said she felt the action was "not a step backward, but a step forward in getting 'highly qualified' teachers."

The board fast-tracked the bridge-certificate process to give teachers time to meet the designation, but advocates said the public had been shut out of the process. Under the federal law, all students must have "highly qualified" teachers by next school year.

For a bridge certificate, the state set up a point system that gives teachers credit for years of experience in teaching a subject, for taking courses and professional-development sessions under what is known as the Act 48 requirement, and for college courses, including those taken years ago. Teachers can also get credit for teaching a college course in the subject, for writing a textbook, or for winning teaching awards.

The bridge alternative also affects special-education and English-as-a-second-language teachers in self-contained classrooms and those teaching core academic subjects in alternative schools.

Since making public its high failure rate, Philadelphia has offered courses for teachers who failed, with underwriting from by federal and private grants. Tomas Hanna, the Philadelphia district's director of recruitment, had no figures yesterday on how many teachers had taken the courses and passed the test since June.

"Our goal is to have a 'highly qualified' teacher in every classroom, preferably certified, for which they need to pass the Praxis," Hanna said. "If the bridge offers another avenue, that's something we welcome as well, but our bottom line is ensuring Praxis certification."

The federal law allows and even encourages states to set up alternatives for experienced teachers who cannot pass or do not want to take subject-specific Praxis tests, which are used for the certification of new teachers. But these alternatives vary widely.

Before this action, national experts had praised Pennsylvania for maintaining a high standard.

"Kids in high-poverty, high-minority districts are more likely to have the teachers who are just getting over," said Ross Wiener, a policy analyst with the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization in Washington that has supported the No Child Left Behind law.

Weiner said Pennsylvania appeared to be weakening its standard with this alternative.

The two major teachers' unions and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators urged the board to approve the changes.

John Tarka, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, warned that denying the designation of "highly qualified" to people willing and able to teach in poverty-stricken schools could result in even less-suitable people taking their place.

"These teachers are fully certified, and the last thing you want to do is replace them with somebody on emergency certification," he said.

Contact staff writer Dale Mezzacappa at 215-854-5112 or dmezzacappa@phillynews.com.

— Dale Mezzacappa
Philadelphia Inquirer


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