As I reported on this blog last Thursday and updated since, Congress seems ready to lower the standard of teacher owed every child in the country -- particularly impacting children in poor and minority communities -- and to hide that fact while they're at it.
Slipped in at the 11th hour into the Continuing Resolution to fund the government, the provision at issue proposes to call novice teachers still learning how to teach in alternative preparation programs on nights and weekends "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That designation relieves districts of having to tell parents of the teachers' sub-par preparation and allows their continued concentration in poor and minority schools.
Pushed by Teach for America so that they can continue to operate business as usual, it appears more important to Congress to change the law to accommodate TFA than to ensure the equity provisions of NCLB operate as intended. Alternate route trainees (only a few percent of which are actually from TFA) are disproportionately concentrated in low-income, high minority schools despite NCLB's requirement that teachers lacking full credentials be equitably distributed across schools.
The problem is that actual parents and students in schools where these alternative route trainees teach don't want their classrooms to be the exclusive training grounds. They also want the disclosures that NCLB promises as to which teachers have been fully prepared to teach their children and which haven't.
Secondly, serious concerns have been raised by researchers about exposing children to a churn of these novice teacher-trainees in low-income schools--both because these teachers on average do not seem to produce the same achievement gains that fully-trained teachers do (i.e., those who have graduated from traditional or alternative preparation programs like TFA) and because the interns are churning through and not staying around for the long haul.
And that will be the biggest loss under NCLB if amended: states and districts will be relieved of having to develop policies that attract and retain fully-prepared teachers to the neediest schools. Instead, they can continue to maintain the status quo of having so-called "highly qualified" alternative route trainees learn on poor peoples' children--and then move on.
Of course, these same parents and students want Congress to enact new laws requiring states and districts to evaluate teachers for effectiveness and to equitably distribute effective teachers too. But it's not an either or proposition, especially since effectiveness cannot meaningfully be measured for two to three years in. Parents want their child's new teacher to be adjudged fully-prepared and ready to teach on day one.
Responding to some of these concerns which were noted by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post blog today, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Committee that covers education, issued the following statement:
"There is broad, bipartisan agreement among members of Congress and the Obama administration that it is the intent of Congress for alternative-route teachers to be considered highly qualified, consistent with the regulation that has been in place for several years. Chairman Harkin strongly believes that teacher quality is essential to student success, and intends to address this issue as part of a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization. While that process is underway, the 9th Circuit's decision - which reverses a previous court ruling in favor of the regulation - could cause significant disruptions in schools across the country and have a negative impact on students. Maintaining current practice is a temporary solution, and underscores the need to act quickly and reauthorize ESEA early in the next Congress."
Senator Harkin's statement fails to acknowledge that what the courts have called an illegal expansion of the "highly qualified" teacher definition has never been part of the law, and was rejected by Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller early on. To write what was an illegally expansive regulation into law will be a major change from the past. To permit a teacher who may have only just enrolled in preparation to be called "highly qualified" before they have met any training standards defies common sense. To visit those underprepared teachers disproportionately on low-income students and students of color -- and on special education students who are among those most often taught by underprepared teachers -- and then hide that fact from parents and the public under a "highly qualified" moniker flies in the face of the equity, transparency and accountability that NCLB and our leaders apparently stand for.
The fear of "significant disruptions" in the teaching force has no basis, as the court case is currently being appealed and no classroom assignments will be upset mid-year. Furthermore, where there are needs, schools will continue to hire less-than-highly-qualified teachers, as is the case in several hundred thousand classrooms today. NCLB permits such teachers to continue to be employed as long as they fill shortage areas, are publicly disclosed and equitably distributed.
If this were just about enacting a "temporary solution" to avoid short-term disruptions, the language would not seek to modify the highly qualified teacher definition for the next 2½ years. Instead, it has now become more important to maintain the status quo of using poor and minority schools as the proving grounds for these trainee teachers than enforcing teacher equity as NCLB called for and as parents are demanding.
There is a real disruption here -- and it's been to the democratic process. Significantly modifying the standard of teacher quality owed every child in the nation is not something that should happen at the close of session, in the dead of night, behind closed doors in an appropriations bill, but where it is supposed to -- in the light of day during the ESEA reauthorization, with time for deliberation and public input.
[Update: 12/21/10: As expected, the Senate and House enacted the Continuing Resolution today. Congressman George Miller issued a statement explaining his vote in favor of watering the down the highly qualified teacher standard he played a significant role in writing. Miller maintained the vote was necessistated by the possible "major and unpredictable disruptions to schools across the country" if the 9th Circuit's decision were to be implemented. Both Harkin and Miller have now referred to disruptions without articulating just what these disruptions are. As I explained to Congressman Miller's staff on Monday, no disruptions are anywhere on the horizon given the status of the case on appeal and the desire of all parties to avoid any "disruptions." Certainly no imminent disruptions have been identified that warrant enacting this significant amendment to the ESEA without proper public processes and deliberation.]
[Disclosure: I am the lead plaintiffs' counsel in Renee v. Duncan, the case that produced the recent 9th Circuit decision striking down the Department of Education's regulation awarding highly qualified status to teacher trainees.]
HuffPost Politics brings you the top political stories three days a week. Learn more