October 29, 2013

By John Affeldt

So much for the Democrats’ insistence on “a clean CR”—a budget resolution that would keep the lights on for now and defer momentous policy decisions for another day. Instead, Congress dirtied up the deal by quietly slipping in a provision calling novice teachers-in-training “highly qualified” and authorizing their continued concentration in low-income, high-minority schools. How exactly is continuing to send poor black and brown kids — not to mention English Learners, special ed, and rural students — a disproportionate share of the nation’s underprepared teachers and calling them “highly qualified” now a national priority on par with keeping the government running and paying our bills?

With this deal, Congress and the President have made sure that our national policy continues to do what no other nation does — call teachers highly qualified before they have completed their training or are ever even evaluated.

A little history: In 2010, a panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Renee v. Duncan agreed with low-income students and community organizations that teachers still in training are not “highly qualified” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As such, states and districts would have to publicly report the existence of these teachers and ensure their equitable distribution among schools. Though Teach for America (TFA) is but a few percent of the hundred thousand or more such teachers-in-training nationwide, the organization has vigorously fought to keep the court ruling from taking effect — not just as concerns its own corps membersbut as to all individuals teaching full-time while still learning how to teach at night or on weekends.

TFA succeeded in slipping into a Continuing Budget Resolution (a “CR”) in December 2010 — at the last possible minute and without any public debate — a provision anointing teachers-in-training “highly qualified” through the end of the 2012-13 school year. So incensed by the back room deal that undercut some of NCLB’s core teacher quality promises, a coalition of now 98 national, state, and local civil rights, disability rights, English Learner, and educator organizations from across the country organized to counter this policy and to push instead for policies that will deliver fully prepared and effective educators to all students.

When TFA sought another 2-3 year extension of “highly qualified” coverage for teacher-trainees in September 2012, the Coalition for Teaching Quality’s efforts in Congress succeeded in limiting the extension to one year (to the end of the current 2013-14 school year) and won the requirement that the Secretary of Education report to Congress by December 2013 on the extent to which this odd category of “highly qualified”- teachers-still-being-qualified are teaching low-income, rural, special ed and English Learner students across the nation.

The Obama Administration has been slow to act on the report, and it is now slated to be completed nearly a year behind schedule. Before its results are known, however, TFA and supporters like Senator Harkinhave now slipped into law two more years of “highly qualified” treatment for all teachers-in-training in the country under the cover of resolving the debt crises.

The problem is that actual parents and students in schools where these trainees teach don’t want their classrooms to be the exclusive training grounds for novices. They also want the disclosures that NCLB promises as to which teachers have been fully prepared to teach their children and which have not.

In addition, serious concerns have been raised by researchers about exposing children to a churn of these novice teacher-trainees in low-income schools and with high-need students. These teachers on average do not seem to produce the same achievement gains that fully-trained teachers do (i.e., those who have completed their training either in traditional or, like TFA, alternative preparation programs) and the trainees (particularly TFA’s) are churning through and undermining stability in school communities.

The big losses for our nation here are twofold. First, states and districts are relieved of having to develop policies that attract and retain fully-prepared teachers to the neediest schools. Instead, they can continue to maintain the status quo of having so-called “highly qualified” trainees learn on poor peoples’ children, students with disabilities and English Learners—and then move on.

Second, and as important, significantly modifying the standard of teacher quality owed every child in the nation is not something that should happen behind closed doors, in an appropriations bill, without public debate, but where it is supposed to — in the light of day during NCLB’s long-overdue reauthorization, with time for deliberation and public input.

It’s too bad that, while appearing publicly to take a small step forward with the budget deal, our dysfunctional democracy quietly took another huge step back.

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