Higher standards coming for state's intern teachers

March 8, 2013

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing signaled Thursday its intention to increase training requirements for intern teachers, including Teach for America members, before they’re allowed to teach any of the state’s 1.4 million students who are English learners.

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice in Sacramento, called the Commission's decision to create a stakeholder panel to work out a compromise, "refreshing." (Click to enlarge).

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice in Sacramento, called the Commission’s decision to create a stakeholder panel to work out a compromise, “refreshing.”

At a packed, highly charged meeting in Sacramento, Commission members staked out a compromise position to avert threatened lawsuits from supporters, who had urged the Commission to severely restrict districts’ ability to hire intern teachers, and opponents, who argued that intern teachers, while comprising less than a quarter of the new teachers in California, play an important role, especially where there are shortages, and have proven to be effective.  

Instead, the Commission agreed to create a stakeholders panel to advise CTC staff on ways to ensure that the state’s more than 2,200 intern teachers are held to the same standards for teaching English learners as are fully certified teachers.

“The idea that for one small group of people we make an exception, especially when it’s English learners, demands our immediate attention,” said Commission Vice Chair Kathleen Harris.


Last year, California had 2,252 teachers with intern credentials, this includes about 700 members of Teach for America. Source: California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. (Click to enlarge).

Most aspiring teachers enroll in a full-time, year-long teacher preparation program after college to earn a preliminary teaching credential. Intern programs, run by universities and some school districts, provide an alternative route that allows teachers to earn a preliminary credential at night and on weekends while teaching full-time. They were created with the goal of diversifying the workforce and meeting the need for math, science and special education teachers by appealing to local residents and mid-career professionals who can’t afford to go a year without earning a salary. 

Intern teachers already are required by state law to take 120 hours of pre-service training before they’re allowed into a classroom as a lead teacher. One possible recommendation, which both sides indicated they could accept, would require more substantial training for teaching English learners during the pre-service period. Other options included in a draft proposal released by the CTC would allow interns to earn their English learner authorization by passing the California Teachers of English Learners (CTEL) exam, require them to be supervised by fully credentialed teachers until they complete their training, and require districts or charter schools to seek emergency waivers or restricted EL authorization until the intern is certified.

The commission is putting this on the fast track; Commission Chair and Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond said she expects to receive the recommendations by June at the latest.

Truth in labeling

The emergency waiver option, in particular, riles charter schools, Teach for America and district administrators who see it as a “scarlet letter” that publicly labels a teacher as unqualified. Parents must be notified if their child’s teacher has an emergency credential. Supporters countered that parents have a right to know.

In 2009-2010, 3 percent of people enrolled in teacher preparation programs in California were in district intern programs. Source: California commission on Teacher Credentialing, (Click to enlarge).

The notification requirement doesn’t exist for interns because Congress attached a rider designating interns as “highly qualified” teachers under the No Child Left Behind law to two appropriations bills. The rider is set to expire at the end of this year.

The debate reached ominous levels in the days leading up to yesterday’s hearing, including a series of clashing letters to the Commission that seemed to indicate whatever decision they reached would wind up in the courts.

A letter signed by Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, along with fifty charter school operators and supporters, Teach for America and school administrator organizations, asserted that the Commission has no authority to change the regulations for interns. “Hastily adopting regulations which do not align with a longstanding understanding of the law regarding Intern Credentials is both unwarranted and invites unnecessary future action,” they wrote.

“Interns should be an option of last resort,” wrote backers of the proposal. Their letter, signed by more than two dozen civil right groups, parent organizations and the California Federation of Teachers, reaches a wholly opposite interpretation of the law.

“I think it’s public that we threatened litigation,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates Law Firm, which has argued a number of high-profile education equity cases in California, including Williams v. California, which requires teachers to be authorized to teach English learners.

By the time Thursday’s hearing arrived, the anticipated drama drew dozens of people who waited for up to two-and-a-half hours in a line that snaked from the hearing room into the hallway.

Speaking in Spanish, Juan Carlos Martinez, a father of three, two of whom are autistic, said his special-needs children learned nothing in school until he transferred them to Rocketship Charter, which hires almost exclusively from Teach for America. Now his children are not in the special education program anymore, said Martinez, and he hopes one day they’ll be professionals in the workforce.

Parent Juliet Barraza told a very different story. Her 16-year-old son is severely disabled and in special ed in Castro Valley Unified School District. Barraza learned that his teacher was an intern when she was removed from the class for reprimanding a bilingual child with autism by taking away her coloring book and music, which were used to keep the student calm. When the student became agitated and tried to leave, the teacher chased her around the table and forced her back into her seat.

The teacher wasn’t a bad person, said Barraza, who works at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund as an advocate for Spanish-speaking parents of special-needs children. “This intern just didn’t have the preparation, training or skills to deal with a student with the most severe form of autism, who is nonverbal and an English learner.”

About 60 percent of all intern teachers are in special education classes, where most of them have rudimentary training in both teaching students with disabilities and teaching English learners. However, about 17 percent are veteran teachers, fully credentialed and English language authorized, who enrolled in intern programs to become special education teachers.

Although a number of schools, such as Rocketship Education charter school, have had significant success in raising student achievement with TFA members, research generally shows that experience counts in the classroom. A study by the Houston Independent School District found that students taught by TFA teachers scored lower on state exams than students taught by new teachers not part of TFA. It was not until the TFA teachers completed their certification that their students did as well or better than students with new non-TFA teachers.

That was Rigel Massaro’s experience. She taught in Phoenix for two years as a TFA member, where about a third of her students were English learners. Massaro, now an

Former TFA teacher Rigel Massaro, now a civil rights attorney with Public Advocates, said despite TFA’s rigorous training it took her three years to feel fully competent as a teacher. (Click to enlarge).

attorney with Public Advocates, told the Commission that as rigorous as the TFA training was, it wasn’t enough to give her students what they needed. She said it wasn’t until her third year teaching that she had the knowledge and skills to teach English learners properly without watering down the content in an effort to make it more accessible to them.

“I wish my first-year students had the third year of me as a teacher,” Massaro testified.

Still, few people at the meeting seemed surprised by the Commission’s action. They expected an effort to tamp down the emotion and seek common ground. “I think they took the right action to seek more information and to get the experts from all perspectives to come together,” said Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, and a vocal opponent of the proposal to require emergency waivers for interns. “It’s refreshing that the commission is exercising leadership in recognizing not only the needs of children but the importance of maintaining the intern credential.”


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