Teachers-in-Training Should Not Be Designated 'Highly Qualified'

As the long hot Washington summer lingers on and the appropriations process heats up, Congress is once again working hard to foist untrained teachers on low-income students and other disadvantaged learners. Lawmakers appear on the verge of breathing new life into legislation that defines teachers-in-training as "highly qualified" and facilitates their stealth concentration in schools and classrooms serving low-income students, English learners, minorities and students with disabilities.

Even a child can tell you that it's better to have a teacher who has successfully completed her training than one who has only just begun. Maybe that's why a recent article in The Onion hit home; it featured a kid, albeit a fictional one, lampooning the proliferation of untrained, inexperienced teachers in our nation's neediest schools. You know things are bad when a satirical newspaper is one of the only places you can find the truth.

A Lawful Farce That Spawns Inequity

The inappropriately named "highly qualified teacher" (HQT) amendment -- Section 163 of H.R. 3082 (P.L. 111-242), enacted in December 2010 -- enables this farce by allowing teachers enrolled in alternative training programs to be classified as "highly qualified." The federal government does not collect national data on the numbers and distribution of so-called highly qualified teachers who are still in training in alternative route programs, but the statistics in California are sobering. More than two-thirds of California's "interns" are teaching in highly segregated schools that serve more than 75% minority students, and nearly 60% of California's teachers-in-training are teaching special education students.

In addition, teachers-in-training can keep at it for as long as three years, even if they never graduate from their preparation programs. And, because they are mislabeled "highly qualified," the parents of children taught by these teachers are never notified that their children's teachers are still in school themselves. Schools are only required to notify the parents of children taught by teachers who are not highly qualified, so this statutory loophole means countless parents like Maribel Heredia are lawfully kept in the dark.

We could be stuck with the HQT amendment until 2015. On July 18, a Congressional subcommittee proposed extending it until then, rather than letting it phase out in 2013 as scheduled.

This is a particularly galling development given the legal history behind the HQT amendment. In Renee v. Duncan, the regulation that is the basis for the amendment was challenged by low-income minority students and their parents in California who were subjected to a constant parade of under-prepared teachers, misleadingly labeled "highly qualified." (Disclosure: I represent the plaintiffs in Renee.) In September 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the regulation was unlawful because it directly conflicted with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements. In May 2012, the court reaffirmed this reasoning. But Congress seems intent on ignoring these rulings and keeping the HQT amendment on the books -- and underprepared teachers in our nation's neediest classrooms.

Faulty Logic, Irrelevant Research Fuel Support for the HQT Amendment

You might be wondering why anyone would support the HQT amendment. The answer is complex, but it's rooted in the misguided concerns of some organizations that offer alternative teacher preparation programs, such as Teach for America.

These organizations have convinced Congress that the HQT amendment is a referendum on the merits of alternative certification programs, which serve as important pipelines for new teachers. It's not. There is no dispute that graduates of alternative programs are "highly qualified." They always have been under federal law, and will continue to be if the HQT amendment expires. The question before Congress is whether mere participants in any teacher training program, including alternative ones (i.e., those who have only just begun their training and have not yet completed it), should receive the "highly qualified" label.

Why? Research overwhelmingly backs up the common-sense notion I started with: that teachers-in-training aren't as effective as those who have graduated from training programs. For example, four well-controlled longitudinal studies, using individual-level student data from Houston, Texas, New York City, New York City, and North Carolina, found that teachers who entered teaching before completing preparation -- on temporary licenses or as alternative route participants -- were less effective than fully prepared beginning teachers working with similar students in their initial years on the job, especially in teaching elementary reading. Research on the effectiveness of special education teachers indicates that this is particularly true for teachers of students with disabilities, whose students' learning needs are among the most complex.

Studies on teachers-in-training versus teachers who have completed their training are the only ones that really matter in evaluating the HQT amendment. But Teach for America and other advocates of the amendment, in conflating program participants and graduates, avoid such studies. They typically point Congress toward irrelevant research showing that graduates of alternative programs are as effective as graduates of traditional programs. That conclusion is immaterial to the policy question currently before Congress: are teachers-in-training in alternative routes as effective as graduates of traditional or alternative training programs?

Perhaps the most overwrought argument for the HQT amendment is that if it expires, thousands of teachers-in-training will lose their jobs, leaving students in the lurch. Not true. Where teacher shortages exist, current law permits districts to hire teachers who are not "highly qualified," provided they comply with certain requirements: any teachers who are not highly qualified must be equitably distributed throughout the district (not concentrated in low-income, high-minority schools), parents must be told when their children are taught by such teachers, and the district must implement a plan for recruiting and retaining more highly qualified teachers in the future. Nothing wrong with that.

Another Diversion Tactic: Effective Versus Prepared

Advocates of the HQT amendment sometimes use a diversionary tactic: they argue that measuring teacher effectiveness should replace the effort to ensure an entry-level standard of quality for all beginning teachers. We need both.

How can we possibly discern teachers' effectiveness until they have taught for a few years? We can't. It is critical that federal policy also maintain a baseline entry standard. We do not, as a society, allow anyone to drive without passing a driver's test and only revoke the privilege once someone does harm on the roadways. Similarly, we should not let anyone teach our children without first acquiring a baseline level of training and competence in the classroom. The theory that we can remove teachers from the classroom once they have proven themselves ineffective two or three years down the road ignores the immediate damage done to students.

Reality Check: The HQT Amendment Needs to Go

The kid in the Onion article I mentioned earlier is fictional. But, as Candice Johnson, one of the plaintiffs in Renee can attest, that kid's plight is all too real. Far from destroying alternative certification programs or creating an unworkable situation in our nation's schools, allowing the HQT amendment to expire will give policymakers time to pinpoint the inequitable distribution of teachers-in-training and work toward short- and long-term solutions for children in high-need schools.

Let's call the HQT amendment what it really is: a farce of a law that undermines equal access to fully trained teachers for our neediest students. And let's get it out of the Appropriations Bill -- and out of our children's futures.