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As standards rise, too few teachers

Federal law now requires 'highly qualified' teachers as shortages in the profession mount*

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As American schools reopen, a 15-year effort to "professionalize" the job of teacher is running up against a strong counterforce – the urgent need to fill classroom vacancies.

Students and their parents have long understood that the big question of a new school year is: Who is your teacher? A good teacher can help a struggling student get back on track. A few bad ones can set kids so far back that they never catch up.

Yet, despite the acknowledged importance of their role, America's teachers have not found it easy win salary upgrades or to earn professional respect akin to doctors or lawyers.

They have made gains. Salaries have been rising and many states have raised standards for being considered "qualified" to stand at the blackboard. Now, in what could be a further step toward professional standing, a new federal law requires a well-qualified teacher in every classroom by the fall of 2005.

The catch: These moves to bolster teaching come against the backdrop of tight budgets and high teacher turnover in many places. Pressures to get any adult at the front of an empty classroom could undermine the attractiveness of the profession to newcomers and veterans alike.

Since the mid-1980s, reformers within the profession have sought to set higher standards for entry and advancement, much as was done for medicine in the last century. Respect and rewards for the profession would follow, they said.

At same time, state officials began pursuing alternative routes to teaching, both to meet shortages and to provide easier access into the profession for top college graduates or career switchers. What counted in a classroom was not credentials, but knowing subject matter and being able to interest children in learning it, supporters said. Their programs often included extensive mentoring and on-the-job supervision.

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