Teach for America targeted as legislation seeks to limit inexperienced teachers in California

April 18, 2019

Emma LaPlante, 23, a Teach for America teacher at Frick Academy Middle School in Oakland Unified, discusses a reading assignment with a student on April 12, 2019.

A California legislator wants to ban inexperienced teachers in programs such as Teach for America from working in predominantly low-income schools, saying they lack the preparation to work effectively with the neediest students.

“I want to make sure we have qualified, experienced teachers with our most vulnerable students,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens. 

Several studies show a correlation between teacher experience and student achievement, noting that students perform better academically as their teachers gain experience.

Yet, many educators from Teach for America or similar programs leave after three years, Garcia said. “So, right when they’re getting to proficiency, we’re losing them. I acknowledge we have a teacher shortage, but is this really part of the solution?”

Garcia, a former high school and community college math teacher from Los Angeles County, has authored AB 221, which starting in 2020-21 would prohibit teachers in so-called third-party credential programs from working in schools where 40 percent or more of the students are low-income. They can teach in those schools only if they commit to working in the organization for a minimum of five years.

This would effectively make it impossible for these schools to hire Teach for America recruits, who are asked to commit to only two years. However, many stay on for a third year. A nationwide study found that 60.5 percent of Teach for America teachers continued teaching for three years, but only 27.8 percent remained after five years.

Teach for America spokesman Jack Hardy called the bill “a misguided legislative overreach that strips public school principals of local control in hiring of state credentialed teachers” when they are facing “a massive teacher shortage.”

He urged lawmakers “to work on solutions that will increase, not limit, the supply of high-quality public school teachers in California.” 

Teach for America is a nonprofit organization that recruits what the program describes as “outstanding” college graduates to commit to two years of teaching in low-income schools. They attend five weeks of summer training before they enter the classroom and receive ongoing support. The program is affiliated with accredited university teacher education programs that offer classes that prepare the teachers to earn a preliminary credential after one year.

Ashley Pangelinan, a Teach for America teacher in 2013 who became a full-time teacher in San Jose Unified, told the Assembly Education Committee on March 27 that she would not have entered the profession without the program. 

“It opens doors for smart people who might not otherwise be able to afford to become teachers,” she said. “Why take away teachers like me?”

It is unclear how many teachers would be affected by the bill. This year, 725 Teach for America educators are working on intern or preliminary credentials in low-income schools across California, mainly in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego and Central Valley.

Many California districts rely on hiring teachers with less than full credentials. Yet the bill does not ban teachers with emergency permits or substitutes without teaching credentials from teaching in low-income schools.

In 2017-18, the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing issued 4,926 intern teacher credentials out of a 22,407 total. It also issued 7,839 emergency permitsEmergency permits are issued to meet “an acute staffing need” to applicants who have completed bachelor’s degrees, met a basic skills requirement and have completed coursework related to the subject to be taught. Teachers working with emergency permits are not required to be enrolled in a credential program. Substitute teachers may or may not have credentials, depending on the substitute teaching permit they hold.

Oakland Unified, an urban Bay Area district where nearly three-quarters of students are low-income, is an example of a district that routinely hires teachers who are not fully qualified. This year, about 90 Teach for America teachers are working in Oakland, including about 60 in district schools and 30 in charter schools. The district, which employs some 2,328 teachers, has determined it may need to hire up to 220 teachers on emergency credentials next year because “there are an insufficient number of certified persons who meet the district’s employment criteria for needed positions,” according to a resolution approved by the school board earlier this month.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Emma LaPlante, a first-year Teach for America teacher at Frick Impact Academy Middle School in Oakland Unified, is working on an intern credential while taking courses to complete a teacher credential program.

In 2017-18, Oakland Unified hired 85 teachers with intern credentials and 239 with emergency permits.

Ruby De Tie, principal of Frick Impact Academy Middle School in Oakland Unified, told EdSource that it would be difficult to staff her school without Teach for America teachers because of a lack of credentialed teachers. De Tie hired four new Teach for America teachers this year and has already hired three for 2019-20.

“If this passes, I don’t know how I would staff my school,” De Tie said, adding that nearly all of her students are low-income.

About 113 Teach for America teachers work in nearby Richmond, including 76 in West Contra Costa Unified and the rest in charter schools, according to the organization.

The Assembly Education Committee voted 5-1 last month to move the bill on to the Assembly Appropriations Committee in the hopes of continuing discussions about how best to support needy students and new teachers, while helping districts cope with teacher shortages.

But the bill attracted intense opposition as well, with dozens of education-related groups and officials against it including the Loyola Marymount School of Education in Southern California, the California Charter Schools Association, the California Association of School Administrators, the Education Trust-West student advocacy group and several school districts and charter schools.

Supporters of Garcia’s limit on Teach for America and other teachers with intern credentials include the California Federation of Teachers, the NAACP and the nonprofit Network for Public Education — a New York-based non-profit that advocates for public education founded by Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, author and education historian who has criticized Teach for America. The California Teachers Association has taken a watch position, meaning it may take a position in the future, depending on how the bill may be amended.

Although the bill originally singled out Teach for America for the ban, Garcia agreed to amendments that do not name the non-profit but describe it among similar programs. The amendments also require new teachers to commit to working in schools for five years and prohibit the third-party organizations from charging fees to districts to place the new teachers. Teach for America charges $4,300 to place each candidate.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, said the bill is not necessarily targeting Teach for America as much as it is calling for a five-year commitment.

Hardy said the five-year requirement “is both unenforceable and an infringement on people’s right to choose their profession.”

Some committee members expressed concerns about how districts would fill vacancies if they were prohibited from tapping into programs such as Teach for America. However, a few said they supported the amendment that would require the intern teachers to make a five-year commitment, saying it’s important to create a stable teacher pipeline.

Emma LaPlante, 23, who also got her start with Teach For America, is a teacher for mild to moderate special education students at Frick Impact Academy in Oakland

LaPlante said the answer to the need for fully qualified teachers is not doing away with Teach For America slots immediately. “What’s the contingency plan when all the vacant (teaching) spots are not filled?”

She urged legislators to consider a 10-year plan to expand options for local residents to enter teacher pipeline programs.

Experienced teachers are frequently lacking in low-income schools because charter schools and districts with teachers’ unions are often prevented from transferring veteran teachers by their union contracts. Teachers have the right to remain in a school after they are permanently placed there, although those with the least seniority can be involuntarily transferred out based on declining enrollment or other factors.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union in West Contra Costa Unified, speaks at a rally outside a Richmond school. Gonzalez started his career through Teach for America.

Veteran teachers often prefer to work in more affluent schools where parents raise money for extras, staff turnover is low, students face fewer challenges in their lives, said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union in West Contra Costa Unified. Gonzalez, whose first teaching job was with Teach for America, and his union are taking a watch position on the bill to see what happens next.

The union in West Contra Costa is proposing that no educator in the first three years of teaching be placed at Stege Elementary in Richmond where nearly all the children are low-income and the district has embarked on a redesign of the school. The union also proposes that veteran educators be paid additional stipends of $30,000 to work there during a lengthened school year.

Josh Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said smaller class sizes would also help attract veteran teachers to low-income schools.

“Generally, more veteran teachers, if they have a choice, they’re going to teach in schools where conditions are better,” he said.

Pechthalt said the CFT supports the bill because kids in struggling communities often need more help than those in affluent communities and a few weeks of preparation before entering a classroom is not enough. The California NAACP, in a statement, said the state’s lowest-income children should not “be taught by individuals with exceedingly limited training and no long-term commitment to the classroom, schools and communities.”

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Heba Sairafe, 23, one of four first-year Teach for America teachers working at Frick Impact Academy Middle School in Oakland Unified, speaks to an 8th-grade student in her science class.

Loyola Marymount professor Edmundo Litton told the Assembly committee that the college’s teacher credentialing program, which partners with five districts for Teach for America, is one of the most rigorous in the state. It provides classroom support and helps schools staff hard-to-fill positions in science, math, special education and bilingual education, he said.

“This fails to acknowledge the positive impact of their work,” Litton said.

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