Congress must demand effective teachers for all students

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Congress is debating this week whether to turn back the clock on advances for our most vulnerable students that were part of the legacy of No Child Left Behind.  At stake is whether our legislators believe teachers should be required to complete a minimum level of training and demonstrate competence before they enter the classroom — and especially whether poor and minority students, English language learners, and students with disabilities deserve equal access to such well-qualified teachers.

To provide some history, for years advocates and reformers have been pointing to the large achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and more affluent peers, which has stayed stubbornly large since the Reagan reforms wiped out the educational investments and anti-poverty programs that had caused the gap to shrink significantly in the 1970s.  In addition to the effects of increased childhood poverty and lack of health care, this gap has been exacerbated by a system that spends less on the schools that serve poor children and that frequently offers them the least qualified teachers and principals.

Beginning in the late 1980s, as dwindling and unequal salaries caused growing teacher shortages in poor districts, states were encouraged to lower standards for entering teaching in these communities rather than increasing salaries or improving working conditions.  In California, nearly 50 percent of the state’s new teachers entered without training, virtually all of them assigned to teach in high-need schools.  By the 1990s, it became common in some states for segregated schools serving high-need students in urban and rural areas to be staffed by a revolving door of inexperienced and untrained teachers.

This is one of the problems that NCLB tried to solve when it called for highly qualified teachers in all schools. States and districts were required to put in place recruitment and retention plans to ensure that schools could be staffed by teachers who knew their subject matter and how to teach it.  Many states proved that they could greatly reduce teacher attrition and the need for emergency hires by equalizing salaries between rich and poor districts, offering scholarships to attract candidates to high-need fields and locations, and improving mentoring for beginners.  For example, North Carolina’s Teaching Fellows program paid for the preparation of hundreds of talented candidates who pledged to teach for four years in the state’s schools, bringing long-term talent into the education system to teach math, science, and other critical subjects.  Other successful examples include the teacher residency model and “grow your own” programs,  in which teachers are fully trained and prepared with tools they need to be effective and then given the support they need to stay in the classroom.

But the Bush administration responded to recalcitrance from some by watering down the law to allow teachers who had just begun training in alternate routes to be called “highly qualified” even though they had minimal to no training and had met no standards of teaching competence.  This encouraged the ongoing concentration of untrained novices in schools serving the neediest students, without public accountability or any requirements to solve the underlying problem.  In California, for example, more than two-thirds of interns teach in highly segregated schools that serve more than 75 percent minority students, and more than 50 percent seek special education credentials.

When low-income and minority parents and students sued the federal government to challenge this administrative interpretation and won, their victory was short-lived.  Within a few weeks and with no public notice or debate, Congress last year enacted an amendment — its sole amendment to NCLB in the 10-year history of the law — to write the unlawful Bush-era regulation into statute.  In so doing, Congress labeled teachers-in-training in alternative route programs as “highly qualified,” condoned their disproportionate concentration in low-income, high-minority schools, and permitted states and districts to hide these facts from parents and the public.

Meaningless definition

The Harkin/Enzi bill builds this troubling amendment into the fabric of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill.  While the bill maintains NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” terminology, its definition of the term to include teachers-in-training sets a standard so low as to make the phrase virtually meaningless and its protections for at-risk students nearly nonexistent.  Even more troubling, the bill’s “highly qualified teacher” standard applies only to teachers in their first year or so, after which the bill abandons teacher qualifications to focus on teacher evaluation results in states that have implemented evaluation systems.

Some would say that the new provisions for evaluation systems make any attention to teachers’ initial qualifications unnecessary.  But this “effectiveness only” approach ignores the reality that states’ evaluation systems won’t be up and running for at least a few years, and, once implemented, will require a few years of classroom data from which to determine an individual teacher’s effectiveness.  (We put aside, for the moment, whether the teacher evaluation standards set forth in the bill will result in valid and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness.)

The Harkin/Enzi proposal will allow untrained teachers to teach for years before their effectiveness is  measured.  That’s unacceptable.  Students deserve teachers who are both fully-trained to teach on their first day in the classroom and, if they stay, who prove themselves effective at educating children.  In the words of Candice Johnson, a student in South-Central Los Angeles who experienced first hand the effects of this misguided federal policy and visited Congress last spring to demand it be changed: “Why is it OK for students like me to be taught by teachers-in-training? If intern teachers are good enough for me, why aren’t they good enough for the students down the road in Beverly Hills?”

Congress cannot pretend that it really cares about closing the achievement gap or providing equal opportunities to learn if it refuses to address the fundamental right of every child to have a fully-prepared and qualified teacher who knows how to teach their subject matter effectively.

Fortunately, there’s still time for Congress to do the right thing.  When the ESEA is marked up in committee this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will offer amendments to strengthen the definition of highly qualified teacher and end the practice of congregating the least prepared teachers in the highest need schools.  The Sanders amendments will also require that, where untrained teachers are hired to fill shortages, they be adequately supervised and that parents be notified when their child is being taught by such a teacher.  The amendment has the support of a coalition of 82 organizations — including ours.

Let’s hope Congress corrects the mistake it made last year and finally fulfills the promise to provide all students with qualified and effective teachers.  Our future depends on it.

John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc. a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine. This piece was co-authored by the following members of the National Coalition on Teaching Quality: Deborah Ziegler,  Council for Exceptional Children;  Susan Henderson, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund; Barbara Arnwine, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Brent Wilkes, League of United Latin American Citizens; Claude Mayberry, National Council on Educating Black Children; Wendy Puriefoy,  Public Education Network, and Robert Mahaffey, Rural School and Community Trust.

Filed under: Commentary, Federal Education Policy, State Education Policy


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7 Responses to “Congress must demand effective teachers for all students”

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  1. E. Rat on Oct 27, 2011 at 5:34 am10/27/2011 5:34 am

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    The availability of intern credential teachers makes it far easier for districts to avoid the hard work of searching for credentialed educators.  Moreover, those interns are clustered at hard to staff schools, enabling districts to avoid finding ways to make those schools more attractive to career educators.
    Intern credentialed educators are likely to be younger and cheaper, too: lower on the salary scale and more likely to take individual health benefits.

  2. E. Rat on Oct 27, 2011 at 5:31 am10/27/2011 5:31 am

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    Urban teacher residencies give new teachers a year in a classroom with an experienced educator, a stipend and health benefits.  That helps manage the cost of getting a credential without subjecting the state’s neediest students to an endless revolving door of itinerant teachers in training.


    • Arnold F. Fege on Nov 2, 2011 at 8:42 am11/2/2011 8:42 am

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  3. Michael G. on Oct 21, 2011 at 11:45 am10/21/2011 11:45 am

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    I finally realized that John Affeldt is under the impression that the alternative to a non-credentialed intern teacher in hard to staff schools IS a fully credentialed full time teacher.
    The alternative is a string of non-credentialed substitute teachers who are forbidden by law from serving for more than 30 days in a row and are paid half of what a credentialed teacher makes.  A long-term sub able to serve more than 30 days has to have a credential and is paid at the same rate as a regular teacher.  Even if the credential programs were shown to provide better teaching skills, there would still be the issue of supply – particularly a supply of teachers willing to teach in those schools.
    There is no incentive for a school to choose a non-credentialed teacher if a credentialed one is available.  They are paid the same.  To make a credentialed teacher available higher pay needs to be offered.   Offer $125K with a possible $25K bonus like the NYC charter  “TEP” ( ) school and teachers will be lining up to teach there. (See also, )
    Sometimes the reason for the lack of money for teacher’s salaries is the extremely high percentage going to the bureaucracy.  In any event, eliminating the intern program is not going to increase the supply of credentialed teachers available for hard to staff schools, quite the contrary.  It will diminish the supply of teachers.

  4. Michael G. on Oct 19, 2011 at 12:56 pm10/19/2011 12:56 pm

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    The reason for the intern program is because getting a credential takes typically 2 years during which it is virtually impossible to work to hold down a non-teaching job and make money.  Going part time can stretch out the program for years more.  So the intern program was devised to enable people to make money while they are in the credential program.  Without these programs there would be a lot fewer people in the pipeline to become teachers.  The average credential student in my local CSU 12 years ago was 23 y.o.  The average credential student at this time is 46 (so half are OVER 46 – just clarifying for the innumerate).  They cannot afford to take off 2 years without income.
    This actually benefits the students of the interns in that the interns can reasonably ask their professors why something they’ve learned in the credential program is at odds with what they see in the class room.  The professors can then a) deal with the practical implementation of their otherwise theoretical material or, if that is not possible, b) admit that they really have no idea what they’re talking about or, c) that what they are spouting can only be implemented in schools with middle-class and above students.
    There’s an implicit assumption here that credential programs teach anything meaningful.  There is at this time no evidence that any of the existing credential programs make any difference whatever in outcomes.  The ed schools need to show a difference in outcomes – i.e., that a teacher having gone through a credential program is a better teacher we would need some way of measuring a teacher’s effectiveness.  To do that we would need to look at whether the students of a credentialed teacher do better on some objective measurement than those of an non-credentialed teacher with similar experience.  That objective measurement would be something like the CA STAR tests.  This should be done statistically with samples of at least 1,000 at a 95% confidence level because otherwise we’ll get Ravitch-type nonsense of statistical samples of 1 (e.g., Finland) hand-picked to support the hypothesis.  The same ed schools that are responsible for credentialing teachers are universally (often vitriolically) opposed to using such tests for anything at all – evaluating schools, teachers, anything and most certainly their own effectiveness.  This puts them in the illogical position of saying “you need to be in our program to be an effective teacher but we don’t really know what that is so we’ll just yak at you for 2 years, take your money and give you the stamp of approval.”
    As an example of what ed schools want to be considered in accountability is at:
    where a host of ed school professors signed on to accountability to include:
    “…physical health, character, social development, and citizenship skills.”  (pg 5. lower right column).  I am afraid this means we’ll be seeing evaluations like “School X gets a wonderful grade of A+ because although no student can add or read, they are all physically fit, socially developed and have great citizenship skills.”
    At this time we don’t know what makes a good teacher except experience.  Since the ed schools have devoted no resources whatever to figuring out what the difference is between an effective and ineffective teacher (and never will because to do that they would have to accept the validity of objective standardized testing), the real effect of trying to get rid of the intern program is to restrict access to the teaching profession to sweet young things just coming out with a BA who are easily brainwashed.
    The state got rid of the emergency permit which cut out a lot of experienced teachers and then needed to fill in the holes that created with the intern program.  Calls to get rid of the intern program need to explain where new teachers will come from along with objective proof that the credential program of their state makes anyone qualified to teach.

  5. Eric Premack on Oct 19, 2011 at 10:51 am10/19/2011 10:51 am

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    Do we really need to have the federal ‘gummint involved in dictating what constitutes a qualified teacher?
    The past several years of federal micro-management have been a paperwork and red tape tangle for those who run schools and school districts.  Unfortunately, there is little, if any indication that this federal mess has improved much if anything.
    To get a feel for it, just check out the CDE web site ( , including the state’s 149-page plan to ensure so-called “highly qualified” teachers, the 37-page guide to explain whattheheck the federal definition of “highly qualified” is, etc.  On top of this the feds have wired all manner of teacher qualification-related requirements into the various funding programs, including Title I, Title II, and Title III that also micro-manage teacher qualification matters.
    All of this federal mess is layered on top of California’s ridiculous maze of teacher credentialing laws.  To get a feel for just one aspect of the state-created mess, take a gander at the state Administrator’s Assignment Manual (  Its 159 pages only scratch the surface of California’s Byzantine credentialing maze.
    This dual layer of presumably well-intended bureaucracy burns up millions of dollars in bureaucratic time and paper each year.  Whether any of this does any good is not at all clear.   What is clear is that it ensures employment for hundreds of credential-checkers, bureaucrats, professors of education at state-funded and private colleges, and costs a ton of dough.   It also clearly serves as a huge barrier to entry to the teaching profession for many qualified teachers.  No wonder so many of our teacher training candidates are among our lowest-achieving college graduates.
    It would be interesting to think what might happen if we took all the resources spent on this bureaucracy and used it to beef-up teacher compensation and develop better evaluation and support mechanisms.

  6. el on Oct 18, 2011 at 9:04 pm10/18/2011 9:04 pm

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    How about: “Schools can only use intern teachers if they have an API over 800?” :-)

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