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TFA Faces a California Showdown Over Qualifications to Teach English Learners

Teach For America faces a showdown in California, as this state's Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) considers new restrictions that could limit the placement of TFA's corps members in places with English learners. Since California has a large immigrant population, with 1.4 million English learners, this will be a significant barrier. The CTC, now chaired by Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, will vote on a proposal on April 18th, which can be viewed here.

Teach For America calls those they place in classrooms "corps members," but in California, they are considered "interns," authorized to teach so long as they fulfill a variety of requirements.

The proposed changes include:


  • heightened and more explicit requirements for the level of preservice EL training as well as the supervision/mentoring provided to interns (including with respect to teaching ELs);

  • increased transparency at the state and the local level regarding interns' level of preparation to teach ELs; and

  • allowing interns to be authorized to teach ELs only if they meet these heightened preservice and supervision requirements and clearly and publicly stating these restrictions on the intern's credential.

TFA provides its interns with very limited preparation, consisting of five to six weeks of training, and as little as a day of preparation specifically focused on working with English learners.

An array of advocacy groups have appeared on either side of this controversy. Those in support include the ACLU, the California Association for Bilingual Education, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. In a letter submitted to the CTC, they stated:

The United States Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols, and as codified in the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, recognized that EL students need specially-trained teachers to meet their unique academic needs, concluding that: "there is no equality of treatment merely by providing [EL] students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education."

The letter also states,

As Dr. Kenji Hakuta, a nationally recognized expert in the education of English learners and co- chair of the National Research Council's Committee on the Role of Language in School Learning, wrote to the Commission in January 2013, teachers "with specific training in ESL and content support methodologies have been shown to be more effective in student learning" than teachers without this specialized training. Additional research demonstrates that students taught by fully-trained novice teachers outperform students taught by interns and other novice teachers- in-training, and that teachers' effectiveness sharply increases over their first several years in the classroom. Dr. Hakuta emphasized that supporting ELs' language and content area development is "more critical than ever" given the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the state English Language Development Standards. In his words, "it would make a mockery of the research and professional judgment of educators ... to authorize interns to teach English learners prior to their completion of all relevant coursework and fieldwork."
Research further shows that English learners--like other high-need students--are disproportionately taught by interns in California. There were 4,400 interns during the 2010- 2011 school year. Research from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning shows that interns in California are concentrated in low-performing schools serving large numbers of low-income students and students of color--a student population that is also disproportionately comprised of English learners. Nearly 60% of interns teach special education.

TFA is a political force to be reckoned with in California, and the nearly billion dollar non-profit has mounted a vigorous response. A letter opposing this move focused primarily on legal, rather than educational arguments.

It states in part:

Without going into the literally dozens of unambiguous citations in the California Education Code which make it abundantly clear that the legislature envisions interns teaching English learners and in bilingual classrooms, we assert that any suggestion that intern credentialed teachers should not be authorized to teach English learners is a clear misreading of the statutes. Put very simply, the Commission's longstanding practice of issuing authorizations to allow intern credentialed teachers to teach EL students and in bilingual classrooms is consistent with the law and the Legislature's recognition of the importance of intern programs in California. That practice should not be reversed. To change the current practice would be contrary to prevailing law and will produce unwanted and unfavorable consequences for districts, schools and students.

This letter is signed by many individuals associated with charter schools, Sacramento mayor (and husband of TFA alum Michelle Rhee) Kevin Johnson, and Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy.

The heart of the matter is this. Does Teach For America's five week summer training adequately prepare its interns for the challenges they will face when they become the teachers of record in the fall?

I discovered an article, currently under review and not yet published, by Megan Hopkins, a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, and Amy Heineke, assistant professor of bilingual education at Loyola University. They are both former TFA corps members who taught ELLs in Arizona, and their research sheds some light on this crucial question. They investigated the training TFA interns receive, and this is what they found. First, TFA's 800 page training manual has a very limited discussion of English Learner strategies. Hopkins and Heineke explain:

ELs are mentioned only in the first curricular area, Instructional Planning and Delivery in a six-page portion of a stand-alone chapter that presents strategies for differentiating instruction for students with special needs and ELs (TAL, 2012b). There is no mention of ELs in the chapters related to general practices used by "effective teachers in low-income communities" (Hopkins and Heineke, in review, p. 6 and 7.)

Hopkins and Heineke also took a look at the training sessions focused on the subject.

...the only pre-service preparation for corps members related to ELs falls in one training session, entitled Planning Instruction to Meet the Needs of ELs (TAL, 2012). This session is the eighth of nine sessions in the area of Instructional Planning and Delivery facilitated by curriculum specialists, and it outlines generic, one-size-fits all strategies for teaching ELs without offering a foundational grounding in language acquisition and development theories (Krashen, 1987; Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2002), or in the unique social, emotional, cultural, linguistic, and academic needs and abilities of ELs (Wrigley, 2000). Following a script that accentuates the challenges and difficulties posed by ELs, curriculum specialists introduce corps members to a variety of input strategies that emphasize making teachers' language comprehensible, such as the use of visual aids for direct instruction, paraphrasing and repetition, and realia and manipulatives. They also list output strategies, which focus on scaffolding students' language, include explicit language structures and sentence frames, accountable turn-and-talk, and choral and echo responses. For each strategy, corps members receive information on the general strategy (e.g., visual aids for direct instruction), see pictures of concrete examples (e.g., color-coded instructional posters), and practice and apply the strategy (e.g., sketch a visual to help students understand current content).
This approach to EL teacher preparation, which includes a stand-alone curriculum chapter and a single EL training session that is disconnected from general teaching practices, contrasts with the extant research literature on EL teacher preparation.

Hopkins and Heineke also reviewed feedback from TFA interns about their level of preparation.

They reflected on their TFA training and shared their overall lack of preparation for teaching ELs, even though the organization placed them in 100 percent EL classrooms. Despite attending the mandatory summer institute session on teaching ELs, none of the corps members had any recollection of EL-specific training. Shelly, a first-year corps member who attended TFA summer institute in Phoenix along with corps members from other culturally and linguistically regions such as Colorado, Hawai'i, and New Mexico (TFA, 2012a), described her surprise at the lack of training TFA provided related to ELs:
"I know that at Institute there is so much to do and so little time, and so I know that they just try to do the essential things, but honestly I was surprised that at Institute they didn't do anything with ELD, and I'm like, we're in Phoenix, Arizona [a linguistically diverse locale].... So, it was surprising to me that there was nothing about specifically teaching ELD or English language learners." (Heineke & Cameron, 2013, p. 10)

I had many years of experience working with English learners in Oakland. Within my first few years of teaching, the state passed a law that required all teachers working with English learners to obtain a special certificate, which required attending a special course on the subject, and passing a test on language development. Working with English learners requires particular strategies, which cannot be mastered in a day of instruction.

Update:
The CTC has unanimously voted to adopt the new standards described above.

The report had includes this telling detail:

But Los Angeles Unified School District has a very different worry about intern teachers: They come, they get trained, they move on to schools in better neighborhoods or high-paying districts, leaving students with one intern after another.
"Those students unfortunately are experiencing a churning year after year of interns," Janet Davis, director of a Los Angeles Unified School District committee that provides access to professional development classes, told the Commission. "We had a strand of kids who actually had an entire elementary experience with only intern teachers. And those students suffered."

This is what I have observed in Oakland as well, as I have written previously.

What do you think? Will we continue to have the neediest students taught by people with minimal training? Or will the CTC raise the bar?

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