Each day this week, Amicus will feature an editorial post written by one of CRCL’s new General Board members.  Today’s post discusses the question of who should be considered a “highly qualified teacher” and the repercussions of different approaches.

Teach For America (TFA) has built its movement upon the rhetoric of “civil rights.” Wendy Kopp promotes her book One Day All Children as  “a blueprint for the new civil rights movement.”[1] I agree with the portrayal of educational inequity as a civil rights issue. Just choose your statistic – numerous studies show how educational achievement maps onto race and socioeconomic status (such as the finding that “by the end of high school, black and Hispanic students’ reading and mathematics skills are roughly the same as those of white students in the eighth grade.”)[2] This inequity undercuts the provision in every state constitution that grants every child a right to education.

All this is to say, TFA has good reason to frame its appeal to graduating seniors as a civil rights call. I was so persuaded that I joined the movement, and taught for two years as a sixth grade teacher in the Phoenix Corps. I have respect for many of TFA’s efforts, and great admiration for many of its teachers.

However, I was dismayed to learn that TFA and their political allies are re-writing the law that guarantees every child equal access to a “highly qualified teacher” in the classroom. Recent decisions in the ninth circuit and the related repercussions in Washington D.C. generate serious questions: Who has a right to a highly, qualified teacher? What is the best policy to make this right a reality for all students?

The “highly qualified” question arises out of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Congress passed NCLB with the explicit purpose of narrowing the achievement gap in schools. They wrote in numerous provisions to ensure that states, districts, and schools would ultimately realize the promise of a fully prepared teacher for all students, which they defined unambiguously as a teacher who “has obtained full State certification.” (20 U.S.C. §7801(23)(A)). In its regulation, the United States Department of Education (ED) re-wrote this provision to state that the highly qualified label applies to anyone “participating in” alternative certification programs and merely making “progress toward full certification as prescribed by the State” (34 C.F.R. § 200.56(a)(2)(ii)) (emphases added). ED’s revision has had the greatest impact on low income, high-minority schools. In Renee v. Duncan the Plaintiffs challenged the regulation and supported their argument with that fact that “nearly a quarter of California’s 10,000 interns teach in schools whose students are 98-100% minority; as such, these minority students are five times more likely to have intern teachers than students in schools with the lowest proportion of minority students.”[3] In contrast, less than 2% teach in the decile of schools with the lowest minority concentration.[4] In July 2010, the Ninth circuit ruled that the department’s regulation impermissibly expanded the definition of who was “highly qualified.”[5]

This decision threatened the expansion of teacher-intern programs, and such programs have reacted with force by lobbying congress and submitting amicus briefs to the Ninth Circuit to reconsider the decision. TFA has been at the forefront of this resistance. The result was a last-minute insertion into a confusingly labeled piece of legislation: the “Continuing Appropriations and Surface Transportation Extensions Act, 2011” passed on December 22nd. Buried in the middle of the act, Section 163 temporarily adopts the ED code’s definition of a “highly qualified teacher,” effective from the date of enactment through the end of the 2012-2013 academic year.

In the aftermath of the continuing resolution, the Ninth Circuit is reconsidering its decision as well as its directions on remand to the lower court. This past June, they heard arguments from both parties on how to amend their decision. The court has not yet issued its opinion.

This series of events raises the question of how policymakers should reform the education system in years to come. I understand that TFA wants to expand its program. But filling our struggling schools with intern-teachers is not a long-term solution. We should expect our teachers to be trained and prepared, and calling an “intern” teacher a “highly qualified” teacher covers up the problem. It denies parents access to information that they could use to demand more experienced teachers. It denies useful data for reformers to demand a better dispersal of effective teachers across schools. TFA has advanced itself using the argument that a “certified” teacher isn’t necessarily better than an intern teacher. IF that is true – and I’m not saying it is – then the answer lies in reforming how we train teachers and evaluate them once they’re in the classroom. The answer is not to totally do away with certification requirements, or to hide the way we place the least-qualified teachers with the neediest students.

[1] “The Founder’s Book,” Teach For America Website accessed on July 31, 2011 at <http://www.teachforamerica.org/newsroom/founders_book.htm>

[2] “The Academic Achievement Gap: Facts and Figures,” Teachers College, Columbia University Website (June 9, 2005) accessed on July 31, 2011 at <http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news/article.htm?id=5183>

[3] Brief of Petitioners-Appellants at 3, Renee v. Duncan 573 F.3d 903 (2008) No. 08-16661 accessed on July 31, 2011 from <http://www.publicadvocates.org/sites/default/files/library/plaintiffs_opening_brief_renee_aob_case_no_08-16661.pdf>

[4] Id. at 24.

[5] Renee v. Duncan, 623 F.3d 787, 796 (9th Cir. 2010)