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More than 80 percent of Utah's elementary school teachers will now have to prove they are qualified to do the job they already are doing, according to new federal standards.

U.S. Department of Education officials say the state's 8,500 veteran grade-school teachers no longer can be considered "highly qualified" because state criteria fall short.

Utah officials argue the discrepancy between federal and state definitions of teacher quality is more a matter of record keeping than real shortcomings.

"I believe that 95 percent of our elementary teachers actually are highly qualified," said Joan Patterson, the state Office of Education's director of educator licensing. "Unfortunately, we have no way to prove that at this time. We have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to document that they are highly qualified, as we believe them to be."

Utah Education Association leaders say Washington's conclusion shows how out of touch and unfair the federal law is to elementary teachers.

"There are some large inconsistencies in the way they define what it means to be highly qualified," said Kaye Chatterton, the UEA's director of teaching and learning. "In secondary grades, a major in math is good to go, but an elementary major is not enough. So, basically, it says the federal government doesn't think very highly of our elementary teachers."

The feds did sign off on Utah's standards for new elementary teachers and veteran middle and high school teachers. Their conclusions came during a mid-November monitoring visit by department staff, who reviewed Utah's definition of what makes a grade-school teacher "highly qualified."

"The concern is that for veteran elementary teachers, [Utah's yardstick] is based primarily on teaching experience," said Carolyn Snowbarger, director of the Education Department's Teacher to Teacher Initiative. "The law says experience can count as part of the [criteria], just not the primary part."

That means most elementary teachers must pass a test, take additional college courses, dig up old college transcripts or document adequate professional development to show evidence of subject-area competence under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The state tracks the professional development teachers accrue for licensure renewal, but not the classes they take to satisfy their districts' requirements for extra training, Patterson said.

Those district-required classes - or the classes they took to earn a bachelor's degree, for that matter - probably fulfill federal requirements, she said.

No Child Left Behind requires that all core classes to be taught by teachers certified as highly qualified by the 2005-06 school year. The law defines core classes as language arts, math, science, economics, history, geography, civics and government, foreign languages and fine arts.

The easiest way for teachers to meet the federal standard is to have an educator's license and a major or advanced degree in the core subject they teach.

Most grade-school teachers in Utah and nationwide hold degrees in early childhood education or elementary education, but not a core subject. Utah tried to get around that by declaring elementary teachers highly qualified if they had been teaching for three years and earned positive evaluations from their principals.

"An elementary major is not good enough," Patterson said. "I was told Congress does not have confidence in institutions of teacher preparation."

Policy analysts have been watching to see whether the federal government would accept states' definitions for teacher quality. Those independent analysts agree that Utah's definition for veteran elementary teachers clearly violates No Child Left Behind.

"Utah might have walked into one of the only places where the feds could say something," said Jennifer Azordegan, a researcher with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based education policy group. "An elementary degree is not adequate for demonstrating content knowledge in the view of the Department of Education because [course requirements] can vary from one university program to another."

The law does not require states to get federal approval of definitions for "highly qualified," but Washington can withhold the state's administrative funding all the same. At stake in Utah is at least $100,000, which translates into staffing in the educator licensing department.

Patterson and a committee of educators will hash out options for revising the state's "highly qualified" criteria for veteran elementary teachers. The Utah Board of Education will have to approve changes.

In all likelihood, affected teachers will be asked to document - through their existing college transcripts and professional-development records - the courses they have taken in reading and language arts, math, science, social studies and the arts.

What's next

A state committee will meet Dec. 10 to come up with options for the state Board of Education to consider in January. Possibilities include asking elementary teachers to pass a test in elementary education, take additional college classes in core subjects or dig up their college transcripts to prove they took enough math, English and other core subjects, not just education classes.