Congress retains highly qualified’ status for teachers in alternative training

Part of the federal budget agreement reached over the weekend by Congressional leaders and the Obama administration leaves in place a long-standing policy allowing teachers in alternative certification programs to be labeled highly qualified" under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The action comes despite a 2010 ruling from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court that invalidated federal regulations allowing the practice after civil rights groups complained that teachers in the alternative programs - or internships - were disproportionately given classroom assignments at schools in low-income neighborhoods and those serving at-risk students.

Although opponents were not able to muster the votes in Congress this time to overtime the policy, lawmakers did include requirements that the U.S. Department of Education begin collecting state, local and federal data about the distribution of teachers in training who are working in classrooms.

Critics called the data collection "putting a Band-Aid" on the problem.

"I think the data will reaffirm what we already know about the distribution and concentration of teachers-in-training," said Joe Bishop, spokesman for the Coalition for Teaching Quality, a group of about 90 national organizations opposed to the policy.

"I don't think there will be any surprises," he said. "This provision continues not to serve the needs of students with special needs nor students of color as well as low-income families."

The coalition includes the NAACP, the National PTA and the American Association of People with Disabilities - as well as San Francisco-based Public Advocates, which represented a coalition of community groups that brought the 2010 court complaint against the federal regulations.

The administration has resisted revision of the "highly qualified" policy, at least in part, because alternative certification programs provide a key source of teachers for hard to fill slots, often in low-performing urban settings. There is also some evidence that many teachers coming out of these programs are second-career professionals that bring a badly-need outsider perspective to the profession.

The California Teacher Corps, which represents the state's 70 alternative certification programs, has reported that after five years, more than 80 percent of teachers coming from alternative programs are still on the job. They also boast that the programs have over the past seven years placed more than 55,000 teachers into California public schools - many into classrooms of inner city schools.

Another reason Congressional leaders are reluctant to make any major changes to the policy is because reauthorization of NCLB is likely to be taken up within the next year or two regardless of which party captures the White House.

Failure of Congress and the administration to find common ground on revising the nation's primary education law this year prompted President Obama to offer federal waivers to states from most of the requirements of NCLB - an offer that has proven popular among both Republican and Democratic governors.

Fixing the highly qualified issue would be just one of a long list of issues that states want resolved with reauthorization.

The 2010 suit took issue with the policy as it seemed to undermine a key objective of NCLB - that all students be taught by a "highly qualified" teacher. NCLB also requires districts to report to parents and the community how many teachers they employ who do not meet the standard.

But the ruling of the Ninth Circuit was not binding on Congress and only a few weeks after the court action, lawmakers formally expanded the definition of a "highly qualified" teacher to include those in alternative certification programs as part of another temporary budget stopgap bill adopted in late December, 2010. (See Cabinet Report, Jan. 3, 2011, http://bit.ly/RZDyWe)

The continuation resolution approved over the weekend extends the policy through March.

...read more