Public schools across the US are adapting to a historic federal intervention in their work the "No Child Left Behind" law.
Their efforts pose a basic question: How to achieve the accountability at the heart of the law while maintaining the local control essential to the diverse American system of education.
A key area where this question looms is teacher qualification. The law requires a "highly qualified" instructor in every public classroom within five years. That means, essentially, teachers have to be expert in their subject areas and have some form of official certification.
But many local districts are short of teachers, mainly because taxpayers don't provide the money needed. As a result, schools rely on teacher's aides and substitutes who may not be "highly qualified." The law directs schools to let parents know if underqualified help is being used, and some districts are balking at this.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is pushing for greater use of so-called alternative certification to bring into classrooms people who have expertise in a subject but no formal training as a teacher. It wants to extend the "highly qualified" label to such recruits even if they're still in early training to be a teacher.
Critics say this is an example of undercutting the law's tough standards. Actually, what this situation points to is the need to judge each situation on its merits. Those seeking alternative certification should be considered qualified if their expertise is clear and they've shown a commitment to become a teacher. By the same token, aides and subs should be similarly valued if they have extensive classroom experience and good reviews from colleagues and students.
Without more funding from local taxes, schools need this flexibility.