Interns no longer 'highly qualified'By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess
A federal court ruling that narrows the definition of a "highly qualified" teacher has created uncertainty for programs such as Teach for America and second-career fellowships that place aspiring teachers in the classroom in California and other states.
The impact could be far-reaching for low-income schools in districts where intern teachers are clustered; they potentially could lose federal Title I money if they don't spread interns around or hire fewer of them. But the ruling could also prove inconsequential if the federal Department of Education, the defendant in the case, Congress, and the Legislature choose to subvert or simply redefine it away.
At issue is the status of internship programs that place individuals as full-time teachers while they moonlight for their teaching credential. In passing the No Child Behind Law in 2002, Congress mandated that all schools have highly qualified teachers which Congress then defined as having a full state certification. In drawing up regulations, however, the U.S. Department of Education broadened the definition to include an inexperienced teacher who "demonstrates satisfactory progress" toward becoming certified.
Californians for Justice, the now-defunct advocacy organization ACORN, and low-income students represented by Public Advocates sued the U.S. Department of Education in federal court in California, on the grounds that the loose definition of "highly qualified" was a charade, perpetuating the inequitable distribution of inexperienced teachers in poor and minority schools – contrary to Congress's intent under No Child Left Behind.
On Monday, by a 2-1 vote, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its own decision of last year and sided with the plaintiffs, declaring that the regulation violated the intent of Congress.
There are about 10,000 intern teachers in California – about 3 percent of the total – and 100,000 nationwide. That's far fewer than a decade ago, when 40,000 were in California schools. But today, as then, most are hired in low-income and minority schools, with a quarter in the 10 percent of schools with the heaviest concentration of minorities. Even with impressive subject knowledge from their previous jobs in business and industry, intern teachers in alternative certification programs are parachuted into classrooms without training to deal with English learners, foster children and students with disabilities.
Parent notificationUnder No Child Left Behind, schools must notify parents whose children are not taught by highly qualified teachers. So, at a minimum, there will be a lot more letters going out, as a result of the decision. And parents with that knowledge may demand more experienced teachers in their schools. To comply with federal law, districts like Los Angeles Unified may start redistributing intern teachers away from low-performing schools or assigning the best principals to struggling schools. The Legislature also could create incentives to attract more college students to get a credential to teach in low-income, minority districts, as it did a decade ago before the dot-com bust. At least that's the hope of John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates.
(In his dissent, Judge Richard Tallman throws cold water on this idea. Driving out interns could simply create more teacher vacancies in high-needs schools, he said, and the state of California, which wasn't named in the suit, may simply ignore it. "There is simply no basis in the record to believe that California will adopt incentive programs to encourage the voluntary transfer of fully State certified teachers — whoever they may be — as the result of the majority's disposition. Given California's current budget woes, that result is speculative indeed," he wrote.)
The Department of Education also has the option of withholding Title I money to states that fail to address the inequitable distribution of highly qualified teachers, although that's unlikely any time soon.
It's also possible that the Department of Education will appeal the decision or Congress itself will decide to rewrite the definition of highly qualified to include interns with a minimum of training who are working on their certification. That's what Teach for America is counting on. In a one-sentence response to the decision, TFA's communications director, Carrie James, wrote, "We are confident that the decision will be appealed or that Congress will act to ensure that effective alternatively certified teachers continue to be classified as 'highly qualified.'"
Teach for America's appeal
With lots of friends in the Obama administration and corporate America, TFA is the most famous alternative certification program. It places students from the best colleges and universities in high-needs schools for a minimum two-year hitch. There are currently 8,200 TFA members nationwide, including 730 in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. They're placed in schools after only a five-week intensive summer program, then earn their credential in their first year on the job.
Some studies have found that TFA members have performed as well, if not better, than new teachers with their teaching certification from traditional preparation programs. (Most gains in achievement for TFA teachers come in the second year, after they've worked on their teaching certification.) Some principals prefer to hire TFA members, despite their inexperience, because they are high achievers.
Given the success of programs like TFA, even the judge who wrote the majority opinion, William Fletcher, acknowledged that "it is debatable" whether Congress was correct to decide that teachers with a full certification are better teachers than teachers without such certification. But that's for Congress, not the court, to decide, he wrote.
Alternative certification programs serve a vital purpose of attracting second-career candidates who can't afford or cannot accommodate the traditional university preparation program. These programs should continue.
Perhaps the best outcome of the court ruling would be for Congress and the state Legislature to redefine intern teachers as highly qualified only if stricter conditions are met: more advance training and intensive support from mentor teachers that intern teachers need from Day 1.
Instead of lobbying Congress for the status quo, Teach for America should consider revising its model. Why not a three–year program with members in the first year serving as true teacher interns, under the wing of experienced teachers while working toward a teaching credential. Only in the second and third years would they be in charge of a classroom. There'd still be a surplus of college graduates looking to apply. And minority children wouldn't be subjected to raw rookies' mistakes.