Congress Poised to Call Novice Teachers "Highly Qualified" and Allow Concentration in Poor, Minority Schools

Buried deep in the nearly 2,000 page Senate omnibus appropriations bill that Harry Reid pulled Thursday night was an amendment slipped in on Tuesday that sought to lower the standard of teacher owed every child in the nation under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The provision, which has grassroots and community groups across the country up in arms, proposes to permit teachers still training in night or weekend alternative preparation programs (known as interns in some states) to be labeled as "highly qualified" teachers. That designation relieves districts of having to tell parents of the teacher's sub-par preparation and allows their continued concentration in poor and minority schools.

[UPDATE 12/19/10: Though the provision initially died with the omnibus appropriations bill Thursday, it has been revived this weekend. Whether Congressional leaders will allow this extraneous provision into the Continuing Resolution (CR) remains to be seen. The CR is supposed to be a bare bones measure simply to keep the government funded at 2010 levels until a full appropriations measure can be enacted by the new Congress, probably in February or so. Nonetheless, TFA is making a serious run at getting the provision included. Its fate is unknown at this time. On Saturday, a temporary measure was enacted to keep the government running until midnight Tuesday. The pending CR will most likely be voted on Tuesday but could occur any time sooner.]

[UPDATE 12/20/10: The provision has made it into the Continuing Resolution. A summary of the contents of the CR lists the amendment as one of 12 new "anomalies" added.]

[UPDATE 12/22/10: The CR passed the Senate yesterday afternoon and the House last night. For my response to Senator Harkin's and Congressman's Miller's statements explaining their votes in support, see my new blog post here.]

The attempt to insert the controversial language comes just weeks after a panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Renee v. Duncan agreed with low-income students and community organizations that teachers still in training are not "highly qualified" under NCLB and, as such, would have to be publicly reported and equitably distributed. Teach for America, which has vociferously opposed the lawsuit and has substantial clout on Capitol Hill, is the most likely suspect behind the covert attempt to overturn the court's decision through stealth legislation.

(Full disclosure: I represent the plaintiffs in Renee; only a policy wonk following this stuff closely would understand the import of the 7 lines on page 1068.)

Evidence in Renee and elsewhere, consistently show that alternate route trainees disproportionately teach in low-income and high minority schools, contrary to NCLB's command that poor and minority students have equal access to fully-prepared and experienced teachers. Nearly a quarter of California's interns, for example, are teaching in schools with 98-100% students of color compared to less than 2% in schools with the lowest population of students of color.

"Why would the Senate agree to allow low-income children and children of color to continue to be disproportionately taught by the least experienced teachers?," Jeremy Lahoud, Executive Director of the grassroots student group, Californians for Justice (CFJ) and a plaintiff in Renee, asked in a statement Thursday. "Our communities want equal access to the same fully-prepared, highly qualified teachers more affluent communities have."

On Thursday, CFJ and a coalition of grassroots community organizations representing over half a million students and parents across the country sent a strongly-worded letter to Congress, in an attempt to put the brakes on the "highly qualified teacher" amendment. The groups argue that their schools should not be the exclusive training ground for these novices in-training. They also object to the fact that the amendment will relieve states and districts from having to disclose to parents and the public the under-preparation of alternate route trainees and their disproportionate concentrations.

The letter also quotes Congressman George Miller and the late Senator Kennedy, key architects of the "highly qualified" provisions, criticizing the regulation struck down in Renee and a later much-derided California attempt to water down the full certification requirement of NCLB that Miller railed against.

Alternative certification programs led by Teach for America have opposed the court's decision in Renee, suggesting that districts will be forced to fire their intern teachers and students will be left in classrooms without teachers. Their argument appears to have found some traction for some unknown Senator who slipped the 11th-hour amendment into the voluminous legislative package without public discussion.

But the Department's own data (see section 1.5.1 of each report) shows that, in the most recent year reported (2008-09), hundreds of thousands of core classes were taught across the country to millions of students by not highly qualified teachers--173,373 core classes in the ten most populous states alone. Nearly all of these teachers have even fewer qualifications than interns, yet none of them has been fired.

Teach for America and other alternative certification proponents also argue that intern teachers are just as effective as fully-certified teachers. Their arguments have met with heavy criticism from researchers, however, who note that these studies either compare alternate route trainees to teachers with even less training or only examine graduates, as opposed to current participants, of alternative preparation programs. (There is no disagreement that graduates of alternative programs, who thereby earn full credentials, are properly deemed "highly qualified" and are as equally desirable as other fully trained teachers.) Studies that compare alternate route trainees to fully-certified teachers consistently show greater student gains associated with the fully-prepared teachers.

The community groups in their letter to Congress and the plaintiffs in Renee have been clear: they are not seeking to end alternate route programs. They do object, however, to the disproportionate placement of alternate route trainees in low-income communities of color--especially when doing so obviates the need to enact policies that attract and retain permanent, fully-prepared teachers versus the churn of temporary interns--and they want full disclosure of the under-prepared teachers' qualifications.

Congress has been widely expected to consider a number of major changes to NCLB when it reauthorizes the ESEA. Past proposals, however, including one put forward in 2007 by George Miller, Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have not included any major changes to the "highly qualified teacher" definition. Which makes this last minute end-run to modify the ESEA all the more surprising.

The irony of the amendment has not been lost on parents and students. As William Browning from ACTION United in Pennsylvania said today, "It's so wrong that a law that was meant to promote transparency, accountability, and parental participation is being gutted through a last minute, behind-closed-doors appropriations act with little public participation or scrutiny."

Even if the last minute attempts to include the amendment in the omnibus bill and the Continuing Resolution fail, this 11th-hour introduction does not bode well for an open and democratic debate on teacher quality equity going forward.
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