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Posted at 03:37 PM ET, 10/18/2011

Letter to senators: NCLB bill weakens highly qualified teacher definition

Here is the letter sent by dozens of organizations to Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about putting teeth into the definition of “highly qualified teachers” in legislation that rewrites the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The letter, also sent on Monday to committee ranking member Sen. Michael Enzi, argues that the bill — scheduled to be taken up by the committee this week — weakens the meaning of highly qualified teacher by, among other provisions, allowing teachers still in training to be considered highly qualified.

Signing the letter were more than 80 civil rights, disability, parent, student, grassroots and education organizations from across the country who are members of the National Coalition on Teaching Quality.

Dear Senators Harkin and Enzi:

Six months ago, we wrote to you as a coalition of civil rights, disability rights, parent, education, and grassroots community organizations to share our recommendations for ensuring all children have access to teachers who are both fully-prepared and effective. Today that Coalition includes 81 organizations which believe that ensuring full and equal access to qualified and effective teachers should be a cornerstone of the ESEA. We firmly believe our country’s success in having all children graduate college and career ready depends on our ability to ensure all students have access to teachers who are fully-prepared to teach on their first day in the classroom and who, once there, prove themselves effective.

We applaud you for taking the courageous step of releasing a bipartisan bill and attempting to fix some of the many flaws in NCLB. Of particular note, we support your proposal’s provisions to close the “comparability loophole” and thereby require true comparability in expenditures (including the most significant expenditure, actual teacher salaries) between Title I and non-Title I schools. However, we write to express our serious concern that the ESEA Reauthorization proposal, including the manager’s amendment released today [Monday, Oct. 17] undermines the critical goal of providing all children with equal access to competent teachers.

1. THE ESEA PROPOSAL SEVERELY WEAKENS THE “HIGHLY QUALIFIED TEACHER” STANDARD.

Although the proposal appears to retain NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” requirements, the new definition of “highly qualified” weakens the standard so much as to make the phrase virtually meaningless and its protections for at-risk students nearly nonexistent. In this proposal, teachers are defined as “highly qualified” if they have just enrolled in an alternative certification program, even if they have completed little or no training and have met no standard of competence.

This proposal weakens even further the low “highly qualified” standard reflected in the temporary Continuing Resolution (CR) amendment enacted last December — which our coalition vigorously opposed because of the harmful risks to which it exposes our most vulnerable students. That resolution required all states to label teachers-in-training as “highly qualified” merely because they have enrolled in an alternative certification program. This new proposal does further damage by eliminating the CR’s supervision and professional development requirements for these teachers-in-training, allowing them to learn to teach on vulnerable children without training, supervision, or support.

These untrained, novice teachers are disproportionately concentrated in schools and classrooms serving low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities. As discussed below, because the proposal also weakens NCLB’s equitable distribution provisions, it will result in greater inequities in access to fully-prepared and effective teachers. Moreover, as to states and districts that adopt new evaluation systems in order to obtain TIF [Teacher Incentive Fund] grants, the proposal discontinues attention to teacher qualifications for teachers who gain as little as one year of experience, allowing many to continue teaching without ever becoming fully prepared and certified. Overall, one of the greatest promises under No Child Left Behind—that all students are guaranteed well-qualified teachers in the core subjects—will essentially have been abandoned for those students most in need.

2. THE PROPOSAL WILL PERMIT THE INEQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION OF TEACHERS.

Where NCLB prohibited states and districts from disproportionately concentrating teachers who are unqualified, inexperienced, or teaching out-of-field in schools and classrooms serving poor and minority students (Sec. 1111(b)(8)(C)), this proposal would free states from having to equitably distribute any three of the following 5 categories of teachers: non-highly qualified teachers; inexperienced teachers, teachers still in training programs; out-of-field teachers; and teachers not highly rated.

In states that have implemented teacher and principal evaluation systems, the bill and manager’s amendment eliminate entirely the requirement that students whose teachers are not “new” be taught by highly qualified teachers. Instead of a focus on initial qualifications, your proposal would address teacher competence after a teacher’s initial year or so by focusing on ensuring teacher effectiveness. But even if these new evaluation systems are accurate and meaningful — something hotly debated — new teachers will not be covered by them, as most experts agree that teachers’ effectiveness cannot be judged until there are at least three years of classroom data to examine.

Thus, your proposal allows underprepared teachers to teach for years before their effectiveness is ever measured (and, when measured, proposes states do so based on uncertain evaluation standards). Further, nothing in the bill prohibits districts from assigning teachers rated effective in their authorized subject (e.g., physical education) to teach another subject for which they are unqualified and unrated (e.g., algebra).

Allowing unqualified or out-of-field teachers to teach our most vulnerable children will not advance our nation’s teaching quality. The kinds of programs that would do so: incentives to improve working conditions, improve and equalize salaries, service scholarships to attract career teachers to high-need fields and locations, and supports for high-quality teacher education programs for high-need communities are largely absent from the bill.

3. THE PROPOSAL ELIMINATES PUBLIC DISCLOSURE OF DATA ON TEACHER QUALITY AND EQUITY.

Among NCLB’s most laudable provisions were those requiring public disclosure of important data on student achievement and access to highly qualified teachers. Transparency of this information was intended to drive accountability, so that parents and the public could hold their districts and schools accountable for providing students with the resources they needed to learn. We are therefore extremely troubled that your proposal entirely eliminates the requirement that states, districts and schools publicly disclose in their annual report cards information on the qualifications and distribution of teachers. Nor is the Secretary any longer required to report such important data nationally.

While we are pleased that the proposal maintains the provisions regarding parents’-right-to-know the qualifications of their child’s teachers, including the requirement to notify parents when their child has been taught for 4 or more weeks by a teacher who is not highly qualified, we note that this provision, too, will be seriously undermined by the watered down definition of “highly qualified” in your proposal. And while districts are required to report to their states on the distribution of their teachers’ preparation and experience and, where applicable, their effectiveness rating, nowhere is this important information required to be disclosed publicly at the school, district, or even state level.

We thank you for your leadership in crafting this ESEA Reauthorization proposal and for restarting this important public debate. We hope that, through the upcoming amendment process, the proposal can be strengthened to ensure that all students will have full and equal access to teachers who are both fully-prepared when they start teaching and who prove themselves effective over time, based on valid measures of teacher competence. We understand that Senator Sanders intends to introduce amendments to address our concerns. We urge you to support them.

Sincerely,

Members of the National Coalition on Teaching Quality

By  |  03:37 PM ET, 10/18/2011

 
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