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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 10/20/2011

Student: How I know trainees aren’t highly qualified teachers

This was written by Candice Johnson, a member of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, and a student at California State University, Los Angeles. Johnson is also a plaintiff in Renee v. Duncan, a legal challenge to the U.S. Department of Education regulation that permits intern-teachers to be labeled highly qualified and concentrated in poor and minority schools. A version of this was initially published by Education Week. and has special resonance now as a key Senate committee this week is tackling a bill that would rewrite No Child Left Behind, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary School Act, and includes controversial language defining highly qualified teachers.

By Candice Johnson

I traveled from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for the first time in my life last May. It was exciting to visit the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. But I wasn’t there to go sightseeing. I was there to ask my elected representatives why students at our country’s most challenged high schools are being taught by unqualified teachers, and why Congress is letting this happen.

They didn’t give me the answers I was hoping for. But I’m not about to let it go.

I am a graduate of Washington Prep High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. My school is the kind of school the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to “fix.” It’s one of California’s lowest-performing schools. Forty percent of my freshman-year classmates didn’t graduate. The student body is also mostly low-income, and a majority of the students are African-American like me or Latino. There were only a handful of white students in the entire school of 2,000 when I graduated in 2010.

I was one of the lucky ones. I’m currently in college, pursuing my dream of becoming a nurse. But my high school math experience sure didn’t make it easy for me. When I first got to college and took the freshman math-placement test, I looked at those questions and got a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. I realized that I didn’t understand a majority of the problems on the test. As a result, I was placed in remedial classes that won’t count toward my degree.

Looking back, I realize my math problems started in my freshman year of high school, when I had a full-time trainee-teacher for Algebra 1. California calls these teachers, who take classes at night and on weekends to learn how to teach, interns. My instructor hadn’t completed his teacher training, and he couldn’t control the class. It was a free-for-all in there. We hardly did anything, and a lot of kids ended up “ditching,” or skipping class all together. I just kind of floated by, happy to finish.

Like most of the interns who showed up at my school, he was gone by the time I graduated, so I don’t know if he ever learned how to be a more effective teacher.

What I do know is that math gets harder, not easier. Geometry and Algebra 2 didn’t make sense without an understanding of Algebra 1. Was that teacher the only reason that I’m struggling with college math now? Of course not. And are there also experienced teachers who can’t control their classrooms? Yes. But that doesn’t make putting most of the intern teachers in schools like Washington Prep right.

I found out that more than a quarter of the teachers at Washington Prep are in their first or second years of teaching, and one-fifth are interns. You just don’t find that in richer school districts. It seems as if someone made a choice to make schools in the poorer areas the revolving door for all the new teachers who are still in training.

While I was hardly the perfect student, I think that my success in other courses proves that getting qualified teachers really does make a difference. Luckily for me, when it came to English, I had a wonderful teacher for both my junior and senior years. She had years of experience and really cared about my education. Her class was one of the few I looked forward to, and when I got to college, I was able to test out of remedial English.

But here’s the crazy thing. According to Congress, my English teacher and my Algebra 1 teacher are both “highly qualified.” How can that be? It doesn’t make sense, but last December, legislators passed a temporary law that calls intern teachers like my Algebra 1 teacher “highly qualified” even though they are still learning how to teach. The law also allows them to be concentrated at schools like Washington Prep.

That brings me back to my trip to Washington. I didn’t get to meet with any actual legislators, but I did speak to several congressional staff members. I told them what it feels like to be the student on the other end of the lie about teacher quality. I asked them to own up to that lie when Congress ultimately reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most recent version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act. I asked: “Why is it OK for students like me to be taught by teachers-in-training? If intern teachers are good enough for me, why aren’t they good enough for the students down the road in Beverly Hills?”

A few of the staff members seemed interested and looked me in the eye. But some looked right through me and just said, “OK, thank you” when I finished. (I may be 19, but I’m old enough to know what that really meant: I don’t care.) Some told me that this definition of “highly qualified” was necessary because there weren’t enough fully certified teachers who would take jobs at schools like mine.

But I want to know why the federal government is more interested in hiding the fact that poorer schools are more likely to get poor-quality teachers. Don’t tell me you’re giving me highly qualified teachers when you’re actually giving me teachers who have only just started their training and have never been in front of a group of students before. And don’t pretend you’re giving me the same quality of teachers that kids down the road in Beverly Hills are getting.

If interns really are the best you can get to teach me, my elected representatives should own up to it — and make my school district and state own up to it, too. Parents, students, and the public deserve to know what’s really going on. Then we can start working together to bring fully prepared and effective teachers to my school.

Look, maybe my story isn’t the worst out there. At least I was lucky enough to pass my math classes and get through high school. I still have a shot at a college degree and the career in nursing I’ve always wanted.

But I think those opportunities mean I have an even greater responsibility to speak up and make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to my younger sisters and the other students going through the system today in South Central Los Angeles.

So I went to Washington. I’m not sure my legislators heard me, but hopefully others will listen. The future of millions of kids around the country depends on it.

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