Loophole calls interns ‘highly qualified’ teachers
SACRAMENTO (AP) — When Maribel Heredia’s son told her that his first-grade teacher was “going to college” and there would be a substitute in the classroom two days a week, she started asking questions.
Only then did she learn the teacher the Hayward Unified School District labels “highly qualified” is still a student herself.
Calling the teacher highly qualified allows the district to meet the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which requires that all students be taught by skilled teachers in core subjects such as English and math. The district’s classification is legal.
Heredia said she believes such classifications are misleading and allow districts to place unqualified teachers in classrooms. On Tuesday, she was among a group of parents and education advocates who sued the U.S. Department of Education over its interpretation of what makes a highly qualified teacher.
“I didn’t know that they let the teachers right from college, let them take a class all by themselves,” Heredia said. “So the fact that she was considered highly qualified, that was a shocker to me.”
Cheryl Petermann, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Hayward district, declined to comment.
The loophole in the law allows school districts around the country to skirt the spirit of No Child Left Behind, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The suit claims that only teachers with full state certification should be considered highly qualified.
“Congress did not intend that an individual with no prior training in how to teach would be labeled ‘highly qualified’ on her first day in the classroom merely because she is ‘participating’ in an alternative route to certification,” the lawsuit states.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit. A message left by The Associated Press with the House Committee on Education and Labor, chaired by Democratic Rep. George Miller, of California, was not returned.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said in a statement that he was sympathetic to the parents’ desire for better teachers. He also said there are not enough highly qualified teachers in public schools serving blacks and Hispanics.
The provision, which covers teachers in alternative certification programs, allows more than 10,000 interns in California to be classified as highly qualified, the lawsuit claims.
Nationwide, there are tens of thousands of “highly qualified” interns in the classroom, although there is no way to know the exact number because states are not required to report it, said John Affeldt, managing attorney with Public Advocates, a San Francisco law firm that is among the parties to the lawsuit.
A law passed by the state Legislature requires California school districts to report the number of interns on their staffs. That report shows only the number, however, making it difficult for parents such as Heredia to know how much training their child’s teacher has.
The No Child Left Behind Act also requires schools that receive federal poverty funding to notify parents when their child is taught for more than four weeks by a teacher who is not highly qualified. Districts can skip the mandate if the teachers are part of an alternative teacher training program.
Intern teachers who are still learning don’t like the loophole either and should not be held to the same standard as teachers who have decades of experience in the classroom, said Chelsea Byers, an intern teacher in the Oakland Unified School District who also is labeled as highly qualified.
Byers, 22, a California State University East Bay student who is part of the Teach for America program, is one of two intern teachers on a staff of seven at her middle school.
“It seems wrong that a school district can say 100 percent of its teachers are highly qualified, when in reality 40 percent of the teachers are still in training,” she said.
Unqualified and intern teachers are far more likely to be concentrated in low-performing schools and in schools with high percentages of poor and minority students — among the education inequities the federal law was designed to address.
According to Public Advocates, more than half California’s intern teachers are working in schools where 90 percent to 100 percent of the students are minorities, and more than half also are in the lowest-performing schools.
All states were supposed to ensure by June 2006 that 100 percent of teachers in core classes were highly qualified, but the mandate was delayed to June 2007 when every state failed to make the deadline.