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States await federal review on quality of their teachers

Aid in jeopardy if schools aren't in compliance

WASHINGTON -- Under federal pressure, most states are close to getting teachers who are rated highly qualified in front of every math, history, language, and other core class by the end of the school year. Or so they say.

Thirty-three states claim 90 percent to 99 percent of their main classes have teachers who are highly qualified. That means, based on the No Child Left Behind law, that those teachers have a bachelor's degree, a state license, and proven competency in every subject they teach.

Most of the other states put their numbers a tier below -- 70 percent to 89 percent -- and a few are way behind, according to a review of new state data by the Associated Press.

The accuracy of those accounts is now under review by the Education Department, which is checking not just total numbers but also the figures within poor and struggling schools.

President Bush and Congress have promised parents that 100 percent of core classes will have highly qualified teachers by the end of the school year.

That pledge is a big part of Bush's education law, the pride of his domestic agenda.

With few states, if any, expected to reach full compliance on time, the department plans to allow an extra year to states that have shown a good-faith effort. Others could lose millions of dollars in aid if federal officials don't see enough progress.

''What we're trying to measure is whether states are on track," said Rene Islas, who oversees teacher quality for the department's elementary and secondary education office. ''They don't necessarily have to be at 100 percent, but they have to be pretty close, and they have to be pretty close in all of the areas we're measuring."

States must prove they have:

Set a fair definition of ''highly qualified." While federal law sets the parameters, states have huge leeway when it comes to qualifying their veteran teachers.

Provided parents with a clear picture of how many classes are taught by qualified teachers. This is supposed to happen in state, district, and school report cards.

Given complete and accurate data about their teacher corps to the Education Department, including the disparities between poor and wealthier schools.

Ensured that poor and minority children do not have a higher percentage of inexperienced or unqualified teachers than any other youngsters.

By May 15, states will find out where they stand and whether they will lose federal aid.

The law cannot force teachers to be fired or reassigned. But federal leaders hope parents, when informed about underqualified teachers, will pressure schools to act. Although the federal term is ''highly qualified," the definition is widely regarded as more of a minimum qualification, because it requires teachers to know what they teach.

Nationwide, 91 percent of core classes were taught by highly qualified teachers in the 2004-05 school year, up from 86 percent the year before, according to preliminary state data. Teacher data lag a year behind, so last year's numbers are being used to judge the current year.

Skepticism remains over whether states have inflated their quality numbers by setting easy standards for veteran teachers. Some states have allowed teachers to qualify based on conferences attended, awards won, years taught, and other accumulated experience.

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