California defines ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’ teachers, and why it matters

September 15, 2017

First grade classroom at Redwood Heights Elementary in Oakland

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Intern teachers in programs like Teach for America who earn their preliminary credential while on the job will not have the scarlet letter of being labeled an “ineffective teacher” in California.

In adopting the state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act on Wednesday, the State Board of Education resolved a remaining contentious issue: the definition of an “ineffective teacher.” It decided not to include teachers with intern credentials in the definition after much testimony from former intern teachers and districts that readily hire them. All teachers with a teaching credential — including the standard “preliminary” teaching credential through a traditional teacher preparation program or an intern credential — will now meet the definition of “effective.”

Defining and “effective” and “ineffective” and teachers is new under ESSA. It’s a replacement for “highly qualified” teachers, the term used under No Child Left Behind to define those teachers qualified to teach core academic subjects.

Many states are defining “ineffective” and “effective” based on teachers’ evaluations, but California legislators have deadlocked in efforts to rewrite the state’s 40-year-old teacher evaluation law, with teachers unions and administrators unable to reach a compromise. Without a better law in place, the state board steered clear of defining effectiveness by a teacher’s performance.

The definition of ineffective is important because, as board member Patricia Rucker said, intern teachers “tend to be collectively placed at some of the lowest-performing schools, at some of the hardest-to-staff schools, and some of the hardest-to-teach subjects with students who would be considered our priority students.” The same is true for teachers with even less training — those with “emergency” credentials — along with teachers who aren’t qualified to teach the subjects they’re assigned. They too are disproportionately assigned to high-poverty schools, as the state Department of Education has documented.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to collect and monitor data from districts and schools in all of these categories. What the state will do with the data it has gathered is vague under the state’s ESSA plan, which has been one of the strongest criticisms by civil rights and student advocacy groups. The nonprofit law firm Public Advocates detailed its criticism and suggestions in a lengthy June 30 letter to the state board.

David Sapp, the state board’s deputy policy director, said that under the state plan, an inequitable distribution of teachers will be one area that county offices of education can raise when they provide assistance to low-performing schools. Civil rights groups argue the state should take a stronger role.

Intern teachers speak out

The staff of the state Department of Education initially recommended in a July draft of the ESSA plan that those teachers who were misassigned and who lacked a “full” credential should be considered ineffective. Teachers who had completed a traditional teacher preparation program, in which they took coursework and served as student teachers before getting a job in the classroom, would be considered “full” but intern teachers would not.

Then, in an August memo, staff reversed itself and recommended deleting “full” from the credential requirement. Intern teachers, who earn their preliminary credential during their first two years of teaching, would be considered effective.

In 2014-15, the state issued 3,415 intern credential permits and 4,081 in 2015-16. Intern teachers still constitute less than 3 percent of the state’s teachers but, with a teacher shortage, the number has been growing.

In a letter this month to the state board, Public Advocates and two other nonprofits — the student advocacy group Californians for Justice and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment — characterized intern teachers as “less than fully trained and only partially prepared” and urged the board to include them as “ineffective.”

The board should “ensure our highest need students have full and equitable access to such fully prepared teachers, not a concentration of teachers-in-training masquerading as equivalent to fully trained teachers,” the letter said.

But the board also received nearly 150 comments from districts and former Teach for America intern teachers who argued that “ineffective” should be based on the quality of a teacher’s actual performance, not a category based on training and preparation.

Among them was Hsuanwei Fan, a 5-year middle and high school science teacher in downtown Los Angeles who began as an intern teacher. “Some of the best teachers I’ve met in my short career as an educator have been teachers with intern credentials. They are passionate, energetic, and fully intent on getting fully certified while already delivering great instruction,” she wrote.

“Effectiveness should be defined by measures of teacher impact on student performance,” not by credential type, leaders of four regional California Teach for America operations wrote. They cited research that concluded that teachers in Teach for America, which recruits top college graduates who commit to a minimum of two years in the classroom, perform at least as well as other novice teachers, and sometimes better.

Intern programs also provide an alternative path for career changers and others who can’t afford to take out loans to spend a year or two in a standard university-run credentialing program. Many African-American and Hispanic teachers have become teachers through intern programs. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing reports that nearly half of intern credential teachers “identify as people of color, compared to 34 percent of all teachers and 76 percent of our students.”

Defining intern teachers as ineffective would not have prevented districts from hiring them. Instead, Public Advocates argued, lumping intern teachers in with effective teachers would “hide critical data inequities during our severe teacher shortage,” and would “erode our state’s commitment that all students be taught by fully prepared teachers.”

But Fan and others saw the issue differently. “I believe that to inspire the next generation of students of color to succeed, they need to see educator role models who look like them in the classroom. We should be coming up with new, creative and untraditional ways of encouraging young college graduates of color to enter the profession instead of narrowing the gate into the teaching profession even more.”

Public Advocates and others had urged the board to consider additional criteria to define ineffective. The California School Boards Association said it was “disappointed that California has not been bolder” in its definition. In a letter, it suggested additional measures: teachers’ chronic absences, their participation in continuing professional development, measures of student growth and teachers’ evaluations by both supervisors and students.

The board didn’t consider those, in part because the state doesn’t collect that information.

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