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Novice teachers can still count as "highly qualified" in California

July 25, 2009 |  7:20 am

A challenge to federal rules defining a qualified teacher has fallen short in federal court. A judicial panel in the 9th Circuit ruled this week that community groups and public-interest attorneys had no legal standing to bring their case.

Their decision allows to stand a federal regulation broadly defining when a teacher can be considered qualified under the No Child Left Behind Act. The rule in question allows California, in effect, to count novices as highly qualified, even if they are, for example, first-year teachers lacking a teaching credential. As long as they are on track within an appropriate program that would lead to a credential, they pass muster.

The distinction is meaningful because to comply with federal law, schools, school districts and the state must report what percentage of their teachers are highly qualified.  And parents must be notified when a child does not have such a teacher. In addition, federal law mandates an “equitable” distribution of qualified teachers. In fact, Congress has ordained that only highly qualified instructors should teach students in core academic classes such as English, math, science and social studies.

The appeals panel did not base its decision, which was filed Wednesday, on the inherent merits of the argument. Instead, Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote that the case should be dismissed because revoking the contested regulation would not help students who lacked adequate teachers.

“There is simply no evidence that the revocation of the regulation would have a coercive effect upon California,” Nelson wrote. Joining in the majority opinion for the three-jurist panel was Judge Richard C. Tallman. The judges noted that individual states have wide latitude for defining what makes a teacher qualified.

Judge William A. Fletcher dissented.

Civil rights attorneys had argued that a change in federal law would force California to change as well. California is not, in fact, enforcing its own standards by defining as highly qualified a teacher who has not met the state’s certification standards, said John Affeldt, managing attorney for the San Francisco-based nonprofit Public Advocates.

The case was filed in August 2007, when the federal education secretary was Bush administration appointee Margaret Spellings, but the Obama administration continued to defend the regulation before the panel of judges in February.

In public remarks and interviews, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has talked of moving toward the practice of evaluating the quality of teachers by the results they deliver rather than by focusing on more narrowly academic qualifications.

Los Angeles schools are notable for having clusters of inexperienced teachers at schools with a high percentage of poor and minority students. That pattern often results when schools have a high turnover and are harder to staff. In the recent budget crisis, these schools also suffered more layoffs because these inexperienced or not fully credentialed teachers lacked seniority protections.

Many of these laid-off teachers have been praised as motivated, talented and energetic. Critics of seniority rules have characterized the less-experienced teachers as superior to some protected veteran teachers who may be unmotivated or ineffective. Leaders of the teachers union have decried the layoffs, but also defended the caliber of the veteran teachers who have displaced the non-tenured instructors. They have insisted that that some schools will benefit from the arriving veterans.

-- Howard Blume