WASHINGTON – Maryland educators are scrambling to make sense of 1,080 pages of requirements that make up the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as a Jan. 31 deadline for submitting preliminary plans loom.
“This is the most complex set of laws we’ve ever seen in education,” said Ronald A. Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.
Peiffer said the state expects to meet the Friday deadline to file a plan on how it intends to comply with the law, which calls for students to be able to move out of poorly performing schools, among other sweeping changes.
But how those plans will be implemented down the road plagues administrators, he said.
“There’s a lot of scrambling,” said Stephanie Zanich, Title I program coordinator for Worcester County Public Schools. “We want to do what’s best for kids while implementing the law.”
There is a lot riding on the act — states that fail to meet deadlines risk losing federal education money.
Among the changes, states are supposed to ensure that schools make “adequate yearly progress” and that a “highly qualified teacher” is in every classroom. But educators cannot agree on what those terms mean, much less how to achieve them.
The state Department of Education will define the “adequate yearly progress” this summer, after students have taken the new test, Peiffer said.
But Montgomery County Education Association President Mark Simon noted that it is going to be hard to chart a school’s yearly progress this year, since the state is in the process of replacing the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program with a new test, Maryland State Assessment.
Simon said it is “going to be a challenge and highly speculative” for administrators to square the old test with the new multiple-choice test.
Baltimore City has already taken the first step toward meeting the adequate yearly progress requirement, sending 20,000 letters home in August and September to parents of children whose schools did not measure up under last year’s MSPAP. Those parents were given the option of sending their child to a different school, even though there were only 200 transfer slots available, said Mary Yakimowski, the school system’s chief for accountability.
“To fully implement this, we need more clarification and more time,” Yakimowski said. “What we don’t have are the clear blueprints. Always there is this need for information from the federal government on how these things go forward.”
Better defined but of equal concern to administrators is the “highly qualified teacher” provision of the new law.
It defines a highly qualified teacher as one who has a bachelor’s degree, a state teaching certificate, a passing score on the Education Testing Services’ Praxis test for teachers and adequate college-level credit in their subject area.
But there are many teachers in the state who do not meet those criteria. The definition bars teachers who started working before 1987, when the Praxis test was not required, and those with provisional certificates because they just switched careers or moved to Maryland from another state.
Middle school teachers who have elementary school certification would not make the cut, unless they have college credit hours in the subjects they teach.
Stopgap measures have put uncertified teachers into classrooms for years to fill vacant teaching positions, Peiffer said.
“More than 3,000 teachers in the state have provisional certificates and some don’t even have a bachelor’s degree,” he said.
Frederick County Superintendent Jack Dale is also worried about getting “highly qualified teachers” in every classroom.
“We’re a growing county and there are not enough teachers. It is naive to think that we can meet the government’s standard when they (the teachers) don’t exist,” he said.
Talbot County is worried that the “qualified teacher” standards could keep their teacher’s aides out of the classroom, said schools spokeswoman Janel Lanaham. She said many of those “paraprofessionals” do not have the minimum two years of college education that the law requires.
David Shreve, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the law is strict and ambitious and “way overreaches and hammers states that fail to enforce it.”
The new law replaces the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which mainly dealt with Title I schools, those that serve large numbers of poor students. But Shreve said the new law applies to all schools, whether or not they get federal funds.
“It’s very aggressive and there are unrealistic implementations of enormously complex issues,” he said. “I think even people at the federal level are confused.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education disagrees. Melinda Malico acknowledged the law is substantive, far-reaching and has lots of moving parts, but said the department has provided an abundance of guidance to states.
“We realize that in this first year the bill is a challenge for states and schools, but it’s about kids not about systems,” she said.
While she understands the frustration of administrators, Malico said the long-term benefits of the law — parental choice, school improvement and teacher development, among others — are worth it.
Worcester County’s Zanich was trying to follow Malico’s lead and look on the bright side of the confusing changes.
“All children can learn and this law emphasizes that. You can’t just say you’re going to do these things — you have to do them by raising expectations for all kids,” Zanich said. “While it provides a headache, I’m hoping it works.”