By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NEWPORT - Adriana Melnyk likes to think of herself as a highly qualified teacher. But the federal government's definition of such a person doesn't make her feel so special.
All it takes to be "highly qualified," Melnyk learned recently, is a bachelor's degree, a teaching certificate and passage of an exam in her subject area.
Melnyk has all three. But does that mean she's good at her job, teaching Spanish at Newport High School? Not necessarily, she says.
"Paper and practice are two entirely different things," Melnyk says.
That's one reason some experts are questioning the usefulness of the government's new data on "highly qualified" teachers.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states now must review teacher credentials every year and report how many are "highly qualified" to the U.S. Department of Education. The results are supposed to reassure parents - or warn them - about the quality of people educating their kids.
But the public has received virtually no information on how to get the data, which is not being publicized by the federal government. Some experts doubt the reliability of the information, anyway.
According to state reports this fall, the percentage of classes taught by "highly qualified" teachers ranged from a high of 98.6 percent in Wisconsin to lows of 16percent in Alaska and 35.3 percent in Alabama, says the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Kentucky said 95 percent of its classes met the standard, while Ohio reported 82 percent did.
States are interpreting "highly qualified" in different ways, which may account for some of the variation. The bachelor's degree and teaching certificate are mandatory criteria, but states are free to determine for themselves how teachers must demonstrate subject-area knowledge.
Some have established tougher standards than others, the Education Trust says. It gives good marks to Ohio's approach, which should produce reliable data about teacher qualifications, says Kevin Carey, author of an Education Trust report critical of the numbers overall.
Ohio also deserves praise for offering parents a way to check teacher credentials over the Internet, Carey says. It may well be the only state offering such a service, he says. (The Web site can be found at http://webapp2.ode.state.oh.us/ils/educator_information/.)
As for Kentucky's data on teachers, the Education Trust is reserving judgment, because the state was still developing some of its procedures last year.
But Kentucky's 95 percent estimate for highly qualified teachers appears to be at odds with a 2000 staffing survey by another federal agency, the National Center for Education Statistics.
That survey found that only 77 percent of Kentucky's middle- and high-school science teachers were certified to teach science, while 89 percent of its math teachers were.
"We have disagreed with that...data ever since it came out," says Phillip Rogers of Kentucky's Professional Standards Board, which oversees teacher credentials.
The numbers supposedly were based on responses from 700 Kentucky teachers to a 40-page survey taken one summer, Rogers says.
"I have a lot of trouble getting teachers to complete a one-page survey on school time," he says.
Some parents say they'd rather make their own judgments.
Kentucky's annual accountability tests, taken by students at almost all grade levels, say more about school performance than any paperwork required by No Child Left Behind, says Maria Kenner, whose children attend Kenton County public schools.
Another parent, Doreen Baker of the Covington system, thinks adequate funding is more important than teacher-quality reports. Federal and state governments should help schools pay for all the duties that have been imposed on them, Baker says.
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