12/04/2007 05:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Best Teachers Left Behind

Before I became a television writer I briefly taught school -- math to second and fourth graders in northern California, then math, English and drama in a private high school in Washington, D.C. I have had the rare opportunity to observe, close up, an untrained teacher in action -- me.

My cousin-in-law, Paula, has followed an inverse career path. She got a degree in Fine Arts from UCLA and went on to become an expert at Sotheby's auction house, then a curator at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and finally the curator of an extensive private collection of contemporary art. After over two decades as a respected professional in the art business, she went back to school to get a teaching degree in history. For the last five years she has been teaching history at the school I once attended as a student, University High.

Teaching today, as we know, is difficult and challenging. Paula faces overcrowded classrooms, with some bright, motivated students but also whole classes of kids who are unprepared and uncooperative. Her life now consists of getting up at five a.m., then staying late at school to work on lesson plans, grade tests and papers, meet with parents, meet with the faculty. Her weekends are totally devoted to preparation and grading for her five large classes as well.

This year the school asked her (as a favor) to take on an added responsibility. They needed someone to teach art history, a subject which plays to Paula's strengths, combining her knowledge and passion for both art and history, but also requiring an additional burden of new lesson plans and other new work. Tough on Paula, but a gift for the students fortunate enough to be in that class, and Paula shouldered her new tasks enthusiastically.

I know how lucky Paula's students are because she once gave my wife and me a private tour of the Norton Simon Gallery. It was a mind and eye-opening adventure in the world of fine art guided by someone who knew her subject intimately and approached it with love, insight and intelligence. So I was stunned to learn that last week Paula almost quit -- when she found out, inadvertently, that University High School had sent a letter, mandated by the current administration's No Child Left Behind program, to the parents of every one of her art history students telling them that their children were being taught by an unqualified individual.

Was the school planning to ever tell Paula about this letter? She only discovered its existence, two weeks after the fact, when a student brought one of the letters in to show her.

Of course Paula immediately went to school officials, who recognized the mistake. Her file at the school listed her information correctly, and her art degree and her history teaching degree were both clear and obvious. The No Child Left Behind rules, designed apparently to avoid situations where gym coaches are teaching algebra with no training or background, require a degree in the subject being taught. But the program itself seems to be so inefficient and clumsy that it (a computer? a bureaucrat in an office in Washington?) assumed that since her teaching degree was in history, she must not have the credentials to teach art.

And apparently, so terrified are our impoverished schools about losing federal money, Uni sent a letter out to parents, over the signature of the principal, without checking with or notifying the subject of the letter, without checking their own records, and without checking with whoever at the school had asked Paula to teach art history in the first place. Surely whoever came up with that idea (a good one) only did so because they knew about her impressive background.

As Paula says, if you wanted to give marginal students an excuse not to pay attention in class and not to do their work, you couldn't have invented a more perfect one. I would add that if you wanted to give your students a behavior model of sloppy work habits and contemptuous disregard for quality teaching, you'd be hard pressed to find a better way to go about it.

But Paula learned that she was not the only teacher to experience a behind-the-back slur on her credibility. The notification has affected many, many teachers all over the district. Four teachers at Uni were misidentified as Paula was, and there were eight others who were on this "black list" for ridiculous reasons. Two new, highly experienced teachers who were recruited from Canada are awaiting completion of their credentials in California. Another brilliant teacher with higher degrees in math and physics is overseeing a student taking an on-line chemistry course. There is such a desperate need for teachers in science and math that the school has had to put these partially federally qualified teachers in the classrooms (they meet state and district guidelines). Ironically, the alternative to taking advantage of these wonderful teachers is to use long term substitutes with no background in the subject.

When I taught, I was untrained as a teacher, but I managed because I, in fact, had a degree in math and because, even without a degree, I did happen to know something about English and drama. Paula, on the other hand, did all her preparation right. She is well-trained in teaching as well as an expert in her field. She is not just qualified, she is superb.

It would be almost funny if it weren't so tragic, but this inane episode demonstrates that we are not going to make our children smarter by being so stupid in the way we run our school system.