Is your child's teacher highly qualified? Thanks to a loophole snuck into the bill to end the federal government shutdown, there's really no way of knowing.
Here's how it's supposed to work: Under No Child Left Behind, all schools -- even the ones where the poor and minority students go -- are supposed to hire "highly qualified teachers." If a school hires teachers who don't meet the federal definition of "highly qualified," they send letters home to parents about their kids' substandard teachers and come up with a plan to fix it.
This is a great idea. It used to be that inexperienced teachers would get stuck with the hardest jobs in underfunded, underperforming schools. As teachers would gain seniority, they would take their experience to better schools where the kids were easier to teach. NCLB recognized that the worst schools couldn't get better without "highly qualified" teachers.
Unfortunately for Teach for America, their graduates didn't qualify. Teach for America recruits smart college kids to teach in poor communities for two years. TFA gives them five weeks of training after graduation and places them in front of a classroom by the fall with only 15-20 hours of teaching experience under their belts.
Having our kids taught by someone with minimal experience and training is not what parents have in mind when they imagine a "highly qualified teacher," and it's certainly not what NCLB required. So Congress did what Congress does, and created a solution that made the problem worse by allowing teachers still enrolled in training to be classified as "highly qualified." That way, when schools hire TFA grads they don't have to let parents know their kids' teachers are barely trained, inexperienced, and unproven.
Putting someone with 20 hours of classroom experience on the same level as someone with National Board Certification in Teaching is like thinking a 15-year-old with a learner's permit and an adult with a commercial driver's license along with school bus and passenger endorsements are equally qualified to drive the school bus. Only one of those options will get you reliably good results, but congress says there's no problem entrusting your children with the riskier option.
This loophole has been a disaster in California, which tracked where teachers-in-training got placed. Predictably, these inexperienced teachers were more likely to find jobs in schools with low-income, minority students. Shockingly, half of the teachers-in-training were saddled with students with disabilities. Sticking the hardest-to-teach kids with the least-qualified teachers was exactly what NCLB wanted to prevent, so California recently created new rules to keep these rookie teachers away from non-English speaking students.
TFA touts a new Mathematica study that says their teachers are effective at getting results in middle-school math, but most evidence points to the conclusion that TFA alums don't do as well as credentialed teachers. More recently, the National Education Policy Center found that "class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA." And a meta-study published in Teachers College Record reported that Pre-K showed improvements 1214 percent larger than what the Mathematica study showed.
Dozens of national, state, and local civil rights, disability, parent, student, community and education groups -- basically, everyone who represents the kids who get the teachers-in-training -- lobbied congress and the Obama administration to close the loophole. But Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, likes Teach for America and worked behind the scenes to use the bill to end the government shutdown as a Trojan Horse to keep the loophole open, according to Stephanie Simon at POLITICO. And Pres. Barack Obama, whose administration provided TFA with 12 percent of its funding in 2011, let it happen.
A better option would seem to be to invest in proven reforms such as Pre-K and smaller class sizes, to expand financial aid for college graduates to get certified as teachers, and to stop playing political games with the definition of "highly qualified".
But what do I know? I'm just a dad with two kids in public schools. No one tells me anything.