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Ed. Dept.: Poorest Districts Have More Trainee Teachers

Across 48 states and the District of Columbia, teachers in high-poverty school districts were about twice as likely to still be learning the ropes as teachers working in the most affluent districts in 2011-12, although the number of such trainee teachers is overall fairly small, according to a congressionally mandated report just released by the U.S. Department of Education. 

States reported that 1.5 percent of public school teachers are still completing their preparation—but are nevertheless considered "highly qualified" under federal law, according to the report. That amounts to about 35,500 teachers in all who fall under the category of what I'm going to call "interns" for the sake of brevity.

Proportionally, teachers in high-poverty districts were more likely to be interns (2.3 percent), as were special education teachers (1.9 percent) and teachers in urban settings (2.2 percent). Teachers in federally supported English-language learner programs were less likely (1.3 percent) to be interns.

The Coalition for Teaching Quality, a diverse collection of education organizations that has long argued that these teachers should not be allowed to be called "highly qualified," said that despite the small numbers, the teachers are still having a potentially negative impact—and that the disparity for high-poverty districts is alarming.

Assuming 25 students in each of the interns' classes, these teachers are reaching about 800,000 students, the group said in a statement.

"It reaffirms the same patterns we've seen in past data sets on fully credentialed teacher distribution: high-poverty students get the short end of the stick, with the least trained and least experienced teachers," it said.

A Long Path

The path to this report is a pretty long and complicated one, dating all the way back to an early regulation issued under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. (The law required all core-content classes to be staffed by a highly qualified teacher—one who holds full state certification, a bachelor's degree, and has demonstrated subject-matter competency.)

Under that 2002 regulation, teachers in alternative-preparation programs—typically career-changers or those in programs like Teach For America—were permitted to be deemed "highly qualified" under NCLB, even though they were still being prepared. 

Critics saw that as false advertising—and argued that these teachers were disproportionately being assigned to the most vulnerable students.

Ultimately, a group of California parents successfully sued to overturn the regulation. But then Congress passed a spending law that codified the so-called loophole. That in turn set up a battle between alternative providers that have lobbied to keep the provision in place and the Coalition for Teaching Quality, which wanted it gone. (The coalition includes many civil rights groups, as well as some organizations, like the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, that don't support alternative preparation.) 

The compromise to keeping the provision in a subsequent spending bill? This report.

Messy Data, Missing Data 

You're probably tired of hearing this from me by now, but teacher data is notoriously hard to parse, and this report is no exception. For one, the report doesn't say anything about how teachers who entered the profession through an alternative program and have now completed their preparation are faring. It only captures a snapshot of how many were at one point still in training.

For another, the report emphasizes that the states' reported data are in pretty bad shape. Most states, the analysis says, can't connect a teacher's credentialing route to his or her course assignments. And so there are a lot of states that couldn't submit data meeting the Education Department's specifications, or could not report on some of the specific populations (special education and ELL teachers). Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education failed to report any information at all.

So, for example, the finding for ELL teachers could be way off: Only 16 out of the 48 states that reported said they had any such teachers still in training, which stretches credulity a bit, given the demand for such teachers.

Meanwhile, what does the research say about teachers coming from different routes? Generally, it indicates there's more variation in quality among traditional and alternative programs than between them. It's therefore hard to prove, from a research perspective, that these 35,500 teachers are on average worse than "fully prepared" teachers. But much of this debate, of course, has to do with perceptions of fairness. Were you to ask any parent which teacher they'd prefer for their child—an intern or one who has completed his or her preparation—I'm pretty sure we'd all know the answer.

The report also includes some interesting factoids underscoring that the drive for alternative programs has much to do with market demands. Proportionally, most of these teachers were in high-need fields like science (26 percent), foreign language (25 percent), middle school (24 percent), and multiple-subject teachers (24 percent). Very few (9 percent) were in elementary education or in early childhood education (also 9 percent).

Also worth mentioning: In its statement, the Coalition for Teaching Quality had especially tough words for the Obama administration for not acting to close the loophole— and a special zinger for New Mexico, which was recently the first state ever to win additional HQT flexibility from the feds.

"With the recent New Mexico waiver, the [Education] Department has gone a step further and let one of the worst offenders off the hook," the group stated.

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