State education officials are getting tougher with school districts over the requirement that they have “highly qualified teachers.” Dozens of teachers have been moved to new schools in the middle of the year, or pushed to take exams to show their expertise.
This is what happens when federal rules and education reform meet school budget cuts in Oregon.
Elle Youngblood was teaching high school law, a year ago. In spite of having a law degree and little science background, she was transferred over the summer to middle school science. Then she got this:
“I was sent an email asking if I was planning on taking the test to become highly qualified in science to keep my job.”
Youngblood says she’s not taking the test to become “highly qualified.”
The overwhelming majority of teachers at Oregon public schools have appropriate licenses, training, and experience for their assignment — and are therefore “highly qualified.” But a few percent a year, are not. It used to be, those teachers could take a few years to get “highly qualified.” Not any more.
That’s caught a number of teachers off-guard — including some like Youngblood who were abruptly moved into new teaching assignments for this school year.
360 teachers were shuffled around in the Beaverton schools over the summer. A number of them — like Youngblood — landed in places where they weren’t highly qualified.
“I took one science class my freshman year of college, because you had to. And that physics class will not enable me to pass any science test that the state would require of me.”
Youngblood says she doesn’t have the time or the money to take science classes to prepare for the test. And she’s worried that budget cuts might eliminate her job even if she did pass the test.
Sue Robertson is Beaverton’s Human Resources Chief.
“If a teacher is in that position, we will do whatever we can in order to transfer those teachers into a position in which they are highly qualified for the next school year. We can’t guarantee that.”
Robertson says in years past, a teacher like Elle Youngblood might have had a few years to change her status. Now it’s a few months.
Janet Bubl is with the Oregon Department of Education.
“ODE is now saying you can’t be on plans for three, four years.”
Had Youngblood been teaching a core subject like math in a school that gets federal money, she wouldn’t have been asked to take a test. She would’ve been transferred, like Beaverton teacher Wes Showalter.
“It wasn’t like an option, it was kind of like ‘imminent.’ And you know what, I had a lot of surprises at that school, and it was just one of the surprises.”
That’s the second time in five months that Showalter was transferred by the district. The first time was budget-related. The second time it was because he was not “Highly Qualified” for his assignment at Aloha Huber Park — a high poverty school receiving federal Title I money.
“So I was like, ‘Great, let the circus begin.’ It’s one of those things, they could’ve said, ‘Hey, your classroom just caught on fire, and you’ve got to move!’ It would’ve just been, ‘OK, here’s another thing.’”
Showalter says he’s happy at Whitford Middle School, where he is now. But he feels bad for the kids he left behind at Aloha Huber Park.
“It’s a shame. I don’t know how else to describe it – it’s awful for those kids. We build a relationship, and those kids in Title I programs, they’re dealt a lot in their lives. They come to school for stability. And to take that away from them? It’s heavy.”
Officials in several districts, including Beaverton, suspect federal auditors are pushing the state to crack down on districts.
Janet Bubl with ODE says pressure from the federal government — including a federal audit a few years ago — have prompted the state to speed up compliance.
“Really, ODE administration has really prioritized the issue, and really has moved more forward on making sure all teachers are highly qualified in the core content areas.”
Bubl says it’s all part of a broader goal to improve what’s called “educator effectiveness.”
But some top education officials question the connection between the “highly qualified” designation and being a great teacher. Vickie Chamberlain heads the licensing agency for Oregon educators, the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.
“Just because someone knows the content knowledge extremely well, doesn’t mean they’re the best teacher in that position.”
The problem, Chamberlain points out, is that the state has to shift teachers around, or require them to enroll in classes or take tests to become highly qualified — because if they don’t, Oregon risks losing millions of dollars in federal education money.