Handout photo of Kathy Scott, who teaches high school in Nogales, Ariz. Photo courtesy of Kathy Scott. From e-mail 04/11/06.

In a Sept. 30 column, Vail Unified School District Superintendent Calvin Baker eloquently described his district’s inability to hire a social studies teacher.

His arguments about how demand exceeds supply and how the Legislature is failing to properly fund education are spot on. Baker asks: Since Vail, a very desirable district in which to work, is having these problems, what must it be like for most other districts that do not have Vail’s advantage? What Baker does not state, however, is that there is no such thing as a social studies teacher today.

Years ago, someone wanting to teach social studies majored in education and took the required subject credits to earn an Arizona teaching certification. Then they could teach any class within the social studies department. Today, a teacher must not only be state-certified, but must also be federally highly qualified in each of the four areas of what used to be social studies: history, geography, U.S. government and economics if they teach even one section of that subject. Before the even more restrictive H.Q. mandates, they could teach a specific class if they had 24 credits, but now any new teacher — or even experienced teachers — assigned an area outside their major must pass that specific subject proficiency test.

For example, when the highly qualified mandate surfaced several years ago, Nogales High had an exemplary teacher who taught a class called World History/Geography. It was a yearlong class that covered two graduation mandates. But this stellar educator had to take the state proficiency exam at his own expense in geography because he did not have 24 college credits in that area, even though he had decades of successfully teaching it.

In fact, most “social studies” teachers had to take one or more proficiency tests because they did not have 24 credits or had not taken the proficiency test in one of the sections they were assigned. A “social studies” teacher might be given three classes of history and two of U.S government/economics.

That teacher needs to be highly qualified in three subjects regardless of whether he had state certification in social studies. It is nearly impossible to hire highly qualified teachers in more than one area, and even more unlikely to have a schedule work out perfectly to match that hiring.

It is not just social studies taking this hit. The same is true for most other areas. It is very difficult to find a science teacher not only because someone very good in science has so many options today that pay better, but also because that teacher has to be highly qualified in whatever area assigned.

Maybe the teacher majored in biology, but because of scheduling issues, is assigned a class of earth science. That teacher is placed on a corrective action plan. The district is dinged for hiring a teacher who is not highly qualified. The teacher now needs to pass the proficiency test in earth science. If they are new, despite how many credits they have in biology, they have to pass the biology proficiency test as well. If these tests weeded out poor teachers from great ones, this mandate would be embraced. But these tests prove little about mastery of a subject and even less about whether that person can teach well.

Baker ends his column by asking, “What are we going to do about it?” He was speaking of funding, but increased funding alone is not going to solve the teaching shortage. His high school social studies teacher who he cites as being so influential would no doubt not be “qualified” to teach today. What indeed are we going to do about it?

Kathy Scott is the Title 1/Grants director at Nogales Unified School District. Contact her at kscott@nusd.k12.az.us.