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One Year Ago Congress Defined Untrained Novices "Highly Qualified Teachers"

Guest post by Tara Kini, Public Advocates Inc.

Today marks the first anniversary of one of the most far-reaching legislative actions in education in recent memory. It was highly controversial and addressed a subject at the forefront of the ongoing debate about educational equity. But if you are like most Americans, you probably have no idea that it ever happened. And that is exactly what the measure's proponents wanted.

Congress stealthily slipped into a temporary budget bill last year language that allows states to label teachers as "highly qualified" before they have finished or even begun training through alternative certification programs. This measure codified an administrative approach initially adopted during the Bush years and essentially gutted one of the most central equity provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act. For now, the legislation has ended many education advocates' hopes of addressing in the near term a problem that has lingered for many years: the high concentration of untrained teachers in schools serving low-income, predominately minority students. Even worse, the provision also frees states and school districts from the obligation to inform parents that their children's teachers are not fully certified.

The "highly qualified teacher" amendment was drafted at the behest of those seeking to overturn a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in favor of low-income students and parents. The plaintiffs in that case, Renee v. Duncan, had successfully challenged the federal regulation that allowed teachers-in-training to be called "highly qualified." Teach for America, whose model centers on funneling new college graduates with five weeks of training to low-income, high-minority schools, saw this victory as a threat to their program. They successfully lobbied Congress to halt the decision in its tracks by writing the unlawful regulation into law through the 2012-13 school year.

The result? Untrained novice teachers continue to be disproportionately assigned to schools and classrooms serving the neediest students: low-income students, students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities, and those living in high-need remote areas. In California, for example, more than two-thirds of these teachers--known as interns--teach in highly segregated schools where more than 75 percent of the students are minorities, and more than half teach special education. In Philadelphia, one-third of the 800 recent new hires are teacher-trainees who are disproportionately assigned to low-income, high-minority schools.

With Congress' amendment, schools with obvious disparities in teacher quality now have these inequities cloaked by the law. It looks as though students in these schools have the same access to "highly qualified" teachers as their more affluent, white peers. But common sense--and a vast research base--suggest otherwise. Studies that compare alternate route trainees to fully-certified teachers consistently show greater student learning gains associated with the fully-prepared teachers--those who have completed traditional or alternative preparation programs. Indeed, given a choice between a teacher-in-training and one who has completed training, most parents would choose the latter.

As Shayla Johnson, a senior in a Philadelphia high school directly impacted by the amendment, told members of Congress at a Senate briefing on the issue this month, "The federal law that allows teachers-in-training to be concentrated in my school and district isn't fair and it's hurting my education . . . . No one in Congress would want this for their own children, so why is it good enough for me?" Shayla is not alone in asking that question.

The congressional gutting of the "highly qualified teacher" provision will expire on its own in 2013. But Congress can act to address this problem more directly when it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is NCLB. When the reauthorization does eventually proceed--which is looking increasingly less likely for 2012--let us hope that Congress corrects its mistake and finally gives students like Shayla the teachers they deserve.

What do you think? Are poor and minority students well served when novices with little or no training are labeled "highly qualified teachers"?

Tara Kini is a staff attorney with Public Advocates Inc. and a former California public school teacher. She represents the plaintiffs in the Renee v. Duncan lawsuit.

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