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Ilana Garon Headshot

Teach For America's 'Highly Qualified' Is Highly Misleading

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Seven years ago, when I began teaching high school in the Bronx as a NYC Teaching Fellow, I had every expectation of being the next Socrates. I had just completed a rigorous summer training program that I naïvely assumed would give me all the skills I needed to connect with my young charges and open their minds to the lyricism of Robert Frost's poetry or the pathos of Shakespearean tragedy. Through my determination, tenacity, and love of learning, I would not only ensure that my students passed their Regents exams; I would teach them to love English, and by extension, to take the whole of their studies more seriously.

The students had other ideas. My most vivid memory of those first two years involves a group of kids known by their teachers as the "sunshine class." (The kids traveled in blocks, so several teachers had the same group at different points during the day.) That season, the cafeteria served little bags of baby carrots to the students during lunch; two periods later, those same baby carrots -- carefully pocketed, instead of eaten -- would be launched at the back of my head whenever I turned to write on the board. No amount of yelling, threatening, or pleading ceased the onslaught; I was unable to turn around fast enough to catch the culprits, and the kids knew it.

They might have been throwing vegetables because my lessons sucked. Looking back at the journal entries I wrote at the time, it is quite apparent to me that despite the intensity of my summer program and the classes I was taking at night, I had no idea what I was doing. In one entry, I describe having the students draw pictures to illustrate scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird -- to what end, I haven't a clue. In another journal entry, I pat myself on the back for the high scores my students received on a test -- one that, when I unearthed it from a folder several years later, I found to contain purely factual questions, requiring no deeper analysis whatsoever. I'm not sure why I thought it was important to test the students on the ages of the characters in Walter Dean Myers' YA book Monster; these days, I'd be much more concerned with their analysis of the moral gray area presented by the book's protagonist.

When I think back on these things, I cringe. Not only did I not become the next Socrates, a paradoxical thing happened -- the longer I stayed in teaching, the more I realized how much I didn't know. As the months and years passed, I learned that teaching is one of those evolving skills without any real end; you're always learning how to do things better. I could never have known early on how lousy I really was. Maybe that's for the best, or else I'd have been too demoralized to stay put. In retrospect, I realize I hit my stride around the end of my second year. It was only at that point that I'd accumulated a body of useful teaching materials, gained the confidence to manage a classroom of rowdy teens, and most importantly -- through trial, error, and watching more seasoned teachers -- developed some sense of what good pedagogy entailed. None of these were things I could have been taught in any training program; they were gains I could only have made through experience.

Unfortunately, the two-year mark -- which is pretty much exactly the time it takes for an average teacher to get "good" -- is the duration of the commitment required by most alternative certification programs, including my program (NYCTF), Teach for America, and the regional teacher corps programs across the country that fall under the umbrella of the New Teacher Project. During most of their tenure in these programs, the majority of new teachers are not only under-qualified for certification, but also completely clueless.

Last week, an "anomaly amendment" was inserted into Congress's Continuing Resolution (a stop-gap that allows the government to continue functioning in the absence of an official budget.) The amendment in question allows teachers who are in an alternative certification program, regardless of the amount of time they've been teaching or whether or not they've obtained licensure in their respective states, to be considered "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) regulations. It comes as no surprise that the amendment received a major push from Teach for America, a program whose mission is to place inexperienced teachers, most of whom are fresh out of college, in high needs schools across the country.

The passage of this Continuing Resolution (and by extension, this amendment) is problematic for several reasons. There are obvious criticisms of alternative certification programs -- the funneling of money and resources into teachers who generally leave when their commitment is up, the fact that placing these new, inexpensive teachers in schools often takes away jobs from experienced (and comparatively more expensive) teachers.

But independent of those critiques, allowing novices to be considered "highly qualified" absolves school districts of their responsibility to attract and retain teachers who possess true skill and experience. Instead, it allows them to tell parents and students, particularly those in the high-needs schools where participants in alternative certification programs are overwhelmingly placed, that all teachers are "highly qualified" without any accountability.

In the wake of heated debates about ways in which teacher efficacy can be most effectively judged, this current move seems particularly misguided. Instead of putting tried and true teachers in the classrooms that need them most, the amendment allows a perpetuation of the status quo: high-needs schools serve as a training ground for the most inexperienced teachers, the majority of whom leave before they ever have a chance to be truly useful to the communities and profession that they serve. For NCLB to then allow this fact to be hidden from parents behind meaningless designations seems not only ineffectual, but downright unethical. Yes, there will always be new teachers, and yes, these newbies are often placed in schools that struggle to fill positions -- but one simply cannot call a club a spade.

There is no way I was "highly qualified" in my first years; to be honest, I'm not sure anyone could have said I was even that competent. In fact, the evaluations I received from my Assistant Principal during those first two years -- many of which were just barely "satisfactory" -- indicated what any moderately observant person could figure out: that I had a lot of work to do before I could become "good." It was only with experience and the consistent support of a network of professional peers -- the latter of which was, in my view, the most significant "take-away" from my NYCTF experience -- that I finally learned how to teach. To deny the crucial learning curve of those formative years in any teacher's career undermines not just the education of high-needs students, but the integrity of the teaching profession itself.