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State, U.S. Feud Over Teachers

by Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2002

Original Story URL:

Strapped for experienced teachers, California is skirting the nation's new education law by insisting that 50,000 rookies without full credentials are nonetheless "highly qualified," federal officials said Monday.

The "No Child Left Behind" law, passed last year, requires teachers in every state to be "highly qualified"--meaning fully credentialed--by the end of the 2005-'06 school year. Teachers hired in this school year on campuses serving low-income children, however, must already be ''highly qualified."

But the California Board of Education has come up with a definition of "highly qualified" that includes teaching interns and novices with emergency permits.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education said that won't do: California must staff its schools with teachers fully licensed by the state.

"You can't define your way out of the problem," said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), an architect of the federal law who has called on California to reconsider its policy. "This is about letting parents know who is standing in front of their children six hours a day and what their qualifications are."

The fight between Sacramento and Washington is more than a squabble over semantics.

Numerous studies show that a high-caliber teacher is the single most important factor in raising student achievement. And the federal government, which will provide $5.4 billion in education money to California this year, ultimately could withhold funds if the state balks at its directive.

Yet the federal requirement poses an enormous practical problem for a state where experienced teachers are in short supply, particularly in schools serving low-income and minority children.

If California follows the letter of the federal law, schools in low-income communities will be unable to hire enough teachers this fall, state officials said. That could push some class sizes up to 50, 60 or more students, they said.

"If there aren't credentialed teachers in the job pool, you can't penalize schools and stop kids from getting services," said Suzanne Tacheny, a member of the State Board of Education. "We've had to take a realistic look at who [is] available to fill the jobs."

Several of California's leading education groups--including the California Teachers Assn.--consider the federal demand unrealistic.

"They may as well have decreed that pigs can fly," said CTA President Wayne Johnson. "I think the State Board of Education is dealing with reality, not myth. Some of these politicians just have their heads in the sand."

California's education secretary, Kerry Mazzoni, said teachers with emergency credentials often are well-prepared for the classroom. They are required to have bachelor's degrees and pass a basic skills competency test. Most are enrolled in credentialing programs.

Teaching interns, who have more training, face additional re- quirements: enrollment in a cre- dentialing program and either passing an exam in the subjects they teach or completing necessary coursework to show they are profi- cient.

Becoming credentialed takes one to two years of coursework and supervised teaching, beyond a bachelor's degree.

Mazzoni described the state's new standard of teacher quality as a starting point, adding that training requirements will be ratcheted up until California teachers exceed the federal government's demands.

"[We] will bring them to full credentials over [four] years," Mazzoni said.

That will be a tremendous undertaking. Of the state's 350,000 teachers, more than 50,000 do not have full credentials now. The ranks of those newcomers are expected to grow as retirements and attrition force the state to find as many as 200,000 new teachers over the next decade.

Gov. Gray Davis and lawmakers have made teacher recruitment and retention a priority, using recruitment bonuses, loan assistance, mentoring programs and other incentives to entice people into teaching. Experts said those efforts are paying off. The number of newly credentialed teachers is rising, albeit slowly--from 17,160 in the 1997-'98 school year to 19,202 in the 2000-'01 school year.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Defense and Education Fund, said that watering down the definition of "highly qualified" will shortchange disadvantaged African American and Latino students, whose test scores trail other groups.

"We are denying our most needy students access to what matters most, and that's truly highly qualified teachers," said Russlynn Ali, director of the Education Trust West, an advocacy group in Oakland. "We are undermining our own progress for political expediency."

The fight over teacher quality stems from a lengthy application that California submitted in June for billions of dollars in U.S. funding.

Amid the paperwork was the state's proposed definition of "highly qualified." As word of it leaked out, Miller and other critics took aim at the state's proposal.

The federal education department reviewed California's policy and found that it violated the "No Child Left Behind" law.

"California will ... have to go back to the drawing board and revise its definition to make sure it complies with the law,'' said Cheri Yecke, director of teacher quality at the Department of Education. "They are going to have to take the initiative to make this right."

Although other states face teacher shortages, Yecke said, California appears to be the only one that has proposed a policy that runs counter to the federal law.

Meanwhile, in schools throughout the state, novice teachers differed on whether they should be deemed "highly qualified."

Most agreed that to be competent, a teacher must obtain a credential and spend three or more years in the classroom.

"I can't sit here and [say] I'm highly qualified. I'm not," said Alex Bodnar, 27, a second-year kindergarten teacher at Cahuenga Elementary School in Los Angeles who attends evening credential classes at Cal State Los Angeles.

"I'm working toward that goal. I still have a lot more to learn. Nothing can replace experience."

Other educators, however, questioned that wisdom.

"A credential does not equal good teaching," said Nancy Ichinaga, a state education board member who spent 25 years as an elementary school principal in Inglewood.

Ichinaga often filled her openings at Bennett-Kew Elementary with bright young people out of college. She personally trained the newcomers, who also were paired with more experienced teachers.

The approach seemed to work: Test scores at Bennett-Kew, which is filled mostly with low-income children, rivaled those of suburban schools.

"Credentials just mean they have a piece of paper that meets certain regulations and requirements, which may have nothing to do with teaching," Ichinaga said.


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