Substandard teachers under the microscope

September 24, 2001


In the coming weeks, a massive Chicago "teacher quality crackdown'' will
determine which teachers in which Chicago public schools are not fully
certified with the state's seal of approval, only one of many steps planned
in response to the Chicago Sun-Times' "Failing Teachers'' series.

New Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan said he is determined to curtail
the use of temporarily certified teachers who have not passed both
teacher-certification tests, especially in struggling schools that most need
"the best and the brightest teachers.''

At least 1,672 such teachers are scheduled to work full time in Chicago this
school year, representing 6.75 percent of the teaching force, Chicago
officials said. Duncan said a series of initiatives, some still being
developed, should trim that number.

The new plan of attack follows findings by the Sun-Times that last school
year, one of every 10 Chicago teachers tested since 1988, or 1,371 total
teachers, had failed a teacher test of Basic Skills at least once.

The test is so easy, experts said, an eighth- or ninth-grader should pass it
on the first try. The state scrapped the test this month in favor of a
tougher one.

Although many Chicago teachers eventually passed the test, 635 tried to and
never did but worked full-time last school year anyway, the "Failing
Teachers'' series concluded. One Chicago teacher flunked the Basic Skills
exam 13 of 13 times and, after eight years of teaching, scored a 12 in the
math portion of the test, a 33 in reading, a 38 in grammar and a 40 in
writing. A 70 out of a possible 100 was required in each section to pass.

The system's first steps to address concerns raised by the series, Duncan
said, will be to identify those teachers holding certificates that
temporarily or indefinitely waive the state's two certification tests: the
Basic Skills test and a subject matter exam. Within two weeks, he said, the
system will post the percent of fully and temporarily certified teachers at
each Chicago public school on the Web. A full certificate is important and
amounts to a state "seal of approval,'' Duncan said.

And within a month, more than 10,000 classes taught by about 3,550 teachers
in the system's 83 lowest-scoring "probation'' schools will be audited to
determine if any teachers there are working "out-of-field,'' or outside
their area of specialty, a common practice in high schools nationwide.
Experts say "out-of-field'' teaching can shortchange students.

"We consider this a teacher quality crackdown,'' Duncan said. "We want fully
certified teachers. But it took us many years to get to this situation. And
it will take us time to improve it.''

Duncan said other initiatives will include new limits on the number of years
certain Chicago teachers can teach without full certification, something he
will seek from Chicago School Board members next month.

Duncan wants to trim the indefinite test waiver for Chicago full-time
substitute teachers to two years, and the five-year Chicago test waiver for
transitional bilingual education teachers to three. Substitutes working in
special education also should be fully certified within three years, he

Under the new crackdown, no wholesale firings are expected, Duncan said,
although some teachers who show no progress toward obtaining full
certification could be replaced this school year with fully certified ones.
In many cases, he said, the system hopes to work with and monitor those
showing progress to ensure they meet new time limits.

In addition, Duncan said, he will lobby the state to give hiring agencies
access to the number of times teachers flunk their tests, and possibly how
they scored on them, and will urge that teaching candidates statewide be
allowed only three years to pass their tests. After that, he said, they
should prove they have taken additional courses if they want to try again.

"You just can't keep swinging and missing,'' Duncan said.

Universities also can play a role. Duncan said he hopes to work more closely
with them to ensure that more of their education students are guided into
Chicago's high-need subject areas, including special education, math,
science and library science. He also will urge that colleges of education
require their students to pass both certification tests to graduate.

"We want to end social promotion at the college level,'' Duncan said.

The bigger challenge ahead

How to fill more Chicago slots with fully certified teachers is the biggest
challenge ahead, especially as a national teacher shortage intensifies and a
tougher new state Basic Skills test threatens to shrink the incoming pool of
teachers. It's the topic of more long-range planning, Duncan said.

Even before the crackdown begins, Chicago Public Schools have jobs to fill.

Chicago more than met its goal of hiring 3,000 new teachers this school
year, said Carlos Ponce, the system's human resources chief. But just days
before school opened, principals requested help in filling 295 teaching
slots. Their budgets reflected even more openings--for 1,352 full-time and
part-time positions, he said.

Ideas being explored to boost the number of fully credentialed teachers
include offering temporary certificate-holders tuition or coursework help,
and providing some kind of incentive to lure fully certified teachers into
Chicago's neediest schools, Duncan said. The system also is considering
waiving the city residency requirement for teachers in critical shortage
subjects in the neediest schools, he said.

Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch has asked for a moratorium on
the residency requirement, and even Nan Giblin, dean of the College of
Education at Northeastern Illinois University, said the requirement makes no
sense in the face of a growing teacher shortage.

"Chicago Public Schools will hire people from Spain or look all around the
world [for teachers], but they won't hire people from Oak Park,'' Giblin

Linda Tafel, provost of National-Louis University, said incentives seem
inevitable. Special-education teachers "are being fought after'' even now in
the suburbs, and they may tell Chicago, "I know I can get a job. What else
can you offer me?'' Tafel said.

Despite the challenge ahead, Duncan said, "We're committed to getting the
best and the brightest teachers in front of our students, especially those
students who need them the most.''

Yet, the neediest children are those most likely to be shortchanged.
Statewide last school year, students in the lowest-scoring,
highest-minority, highest-poverty schools were roughly five times more
likely to encounter teachers who had flunked at least one teacher
certification test, the Sun-Times analysis of state records showed.

Just last week, new state data mirrored some of the newspaper's conclusions.
It indicated teachers in high-poverty Illinois schools were nearly five
times more likely to have temporary certificates than teachers elsewhere,
and that teachers of the state's gifted children were least likely to hold
temporary certificates. Duncan plans a new teacher recruitment drive that
would give prospective teachers a look at schools in communities that they
might not have considered teaching in before.

'Any warm body won't do'

Based on the Sun-Times findings, even outgoing state Education Supt. Glenn
"Max'' McGee said he would encourage hiring agencies to ask would-be
teachers how they performed on their certification tests.

The Sun-Times series is believed to be the nation's first effort to document
how often some teachers failed such tests. Some had flunked three, five, 10
and in the case of one Chicago teacher, 24 of 25 certification tests.
Chicago residents who were holders of full-time substitute and transitional
bilingual education certificates were among the state's biggest test

However, because teacher test results are confidential under the Illinois
Freedom of Information Act, teachers are not required to answer questions
about them. Duncan said Chicago principals who select teachers should be
entitled to such information because "the more employers know, the more
informed decisions they can make.''

Others say teachers' test records may not be as important as how they
ultimately perform in the classroom.

The number of times needed to pass would "probably be very minor in my
determination to hire them,'' said Green, principal of Herzl Elementary.

Herzl's Basic Skills flunk rate was the highest among nearly 300 Chicago
schools surveyed by the Sun-Times. To protect the identity of teachers in
small schools, only those schools with at least 20 teachers tested in Basic
Skills or subject matter exams between July 1988 and April 2001 were

"I would look at what prior experience they have, their staff development,
what kind of creative activities they have,'' Green said. "Those are far
more important things to me than what their score was. Just like we know all
children don't test well, all adults don't test well. Maybe their first try
wasn't their best day.''

Green said that only one Herzl teacher this year is not fully certified, and
if 11 didn't pass Basic Skills on the first try, "that's not persuading me
to feel more positive or negative to them [now]. I have excellent, quality

Miryam Assaf-Keller is principal of Lloyd Elementary School, where 15 of 35
tested teachers had failed at least one Basic Skills exam as of last school
year. She said holders of transitional bilingual education certificates
should be required to write a plan to obtain full certification, something
Chicago officials also are considering.

Instead, Assaf-Keller said, "They cut them loose, and that's it.''

The CTU's Lynch said the system "has an obligation'' to help temporarily
certified teachers it already hired become fully certified, but urged that
it draw a line in the sand and bar the hiring of temporarily licensed
teachers in the future.

"This is a direct result of the teacher shortage, where standards get
lowered and any warm body will do,'' Lynch said. "The hard fact is any warm
body won't do. Teaching in urban schools is very complex, intellectual work,
for which one needs professional preparation. And these shortcuts and
short-circuits into the classroom don't pay off in the long run.''

'Panic' or applause?

Some called the percentage of temporarily certified teachers at each city
school important information, especially for parents on Local School
Councils who will vote next spring on whether to keep about 200 Chicago
Public Schools principals.

Lynch said the system should collect and address such data, but making it
public may wind up "panicking parents.''

Herzl's Green agreed and said some parents may seek to pull their children
out of a school with high percentages of teachers on temporary certificates.
The system should help such schools find fully certified teachers, but to
make such statistics public could cause "self-esteem issues'' among teachers
and "might make principals look bad,'' especially those working in
crime-ridden areas that draw fewer teacher applicants, Green said.

Donald Moore, executive director of a school reform group called Designs for
Change, said he plans to advise local school councils to study such data in
deciding whether to renew the contracts of about 200 principals this school
year. Such numbers are one indicator of "how effective a principal has
been,'' Moore said, and should be a "starting point of discussion'' with
principals on what they have done to find and keep fully certified teachers.

Web postings could only anger parents if the system has no plan in place to
find better-qualified teachers to replace those with temporary certificates,
warned Denise Dixon, president of the Chicago Chapter of ACORN, a community
group that has been complaining about the lack of fully certified Chicago
teachers for months.

"If they don't have [fully certified teachers] now, where are they getting
them from?'' Dixon asked. "They are not going to just fall out of the sky.
It's a good effort, but only if you have a plan to fix it.''

State Sen. Daniel Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican who chairs the Senate
Education Committee, favors listing similar information in school report
cards given to parents of every school in Illinois annually, something other
states already do. Cronin is planning an Education Committee hearing on
Sun-Times findings this November.

Said Cronin: "Any time you're talking about providing parents and families
more information about their child's education, I think it's a good thing.''

Contributing: Becky Beaupre, Mark Skertic

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Basic Skills pass rates for other, but not all, Chicago public schools
can be found on the Chicago Sun-Times Web site, The
Sun-Times "Failing Teachers'' series can be found under an icon of that name
in the Education section of the Web site.

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