Twisted logic on teacher quality

Over 50 civic, parent, teacher, and community organizations, particularly those concerned about children with disabilities, have joined to protest a dangerous insistence on part of the federal government to de-professionalize teachers at the expense of our most vulnerable students. The organizations explain their concerns in a letter to President Obama and Congressional leaders in which they:

…criticized a provision signed into law last month lowering teaching standards required under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The provision allows thousands of underprepared and inexperienced teachers to continue to be assigned disproportionately to low-income, minority, special education, and English language learner students and denies parents notification of the teachers’ underprepared status.

Intended to overturn a recent civil rights ruling won by low-income students and parents of color in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Renee v. Duncan), the provision was quietly added by key Congressional leaders into the Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government the day before the CR was passed on December 21, 2010….

In Renee v. Duncan, the Ninth Circuit struck down a Bush-era regulation that labeled teachers who have not met the standards for full state credentials as “highly qualified” from the first moment they begin training in alternative route preparation programs. The court ruled that the regulation patently conflicted with the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in NCLB that only teachers “who have obtained” full credentials be deemed “highly qualified.” The designation is important under NCLB as all non-highly qualified teachers must be reported to parents and the public and cannot be concentrated in low-income, high-minority schools.

Evidence in Renee shows that two-thirds of alternate route trainees in California teach in schools with 75 percent or greater minority students, while around half teach special education students.

The disproportionate placement of underprepared persons to work with the most high-needs students is part of a national pattern of inequity, and one reason the victory in the California case was so important, and hopefully, precedent-setting. However, the intervention by Congress, signed into law by the President not only throws the California outcome into question, but more significantly, undercuts the sincerity of the Administration’s stated intention to put a high quality teacher in every classroom while preventing parents from knowing the true status of the staff entrusted with their children.

This move touches me deeply, both as a teacher in one of the highest poverty areas of the country, and as a mother/grandmother of special needs children. Here in the Mississippi Delta we use a large number of classroom staff who are in or have come through various types of alterntive training programs. I am not altogether opposed to such programs, in fact, I argued for the development of one alternate program as a temporary relief for schools that were filling core subject classrooms with substitutes for a full school year. The Delta has been a chronic teacher shortage area for over 20 years, and that shortage has historic as well as economic causes. Yet there are places in the country that have excess teachers or where fully qualified teachers are being laid off in large numbers. As we note in our recent book, Teaching 2030, teachers working in our most challenging schools need specific skill sets. The teachers also need “working conditions that promote student learning” (189).

Addressing this imbalance should be the goal of a thoughtful, national policy on teacher quality. Congress and the Administration could have taken a more positive step in that direction by heeding and supporting the advice of the recent Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation of Teachers sponsored by NCATE. As part of its deliberations, a focus group of my colleagues from Teacher Leader Network developed a policy paper which stated in part:

Effective clinical preparation is especially important for those coming to education via some of the fast-track alternative programs. These least-trained candidates are most likely to be sent to the most challenging teaching situations; they should not be relegated to learning-on-the-job while they are in fact the teacher of record, particularly given the great variation and general inadequacy of mentoring and induction practices in under-resourced, high turnover high needs schools.(7)

The highly qualified teachers who authored that paper go on to describe how effective teachers can be prepared, inducted, and retained in our classrooms, including in high-needs schools and settings. As the Panel’s final report notes, preservice teacher candidates, whether they are in traditional or alternative programs, should certainly get the opportunity to be trained in a wide range of school settings, but they should not be placed in those alone prematurely. Rather, they should be embedded into viable professional learning communities where they can hone their craft with support and excellent models.

This misstep by the Administration is part of a larger more disturbing pattern of allowing harmful policies engendered under NCLB to continue, while various groups compete for funds to work towards something better. For example, continuing to force special needs students to participate in state standardized testing based on their age level rather than their performance level, or in violation of their rights under IDEA. Continuing to label students, teachers, and schools as failing using testing instruments that were not designed for such high-stakes evaluations. Secretary Duncan in defending his Blueprint for Reform, insists that those things will be addressed by future solutions. But how is it ethical to allow children to suffer in the meantime?  It would be easier to take the Administration more seriously on its education promises if they at least made the good faith effort of placing a moratorium on some of these practices.