Calif. to Tighten Rules for Teaching English-Learners

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 08, 2013 6 min read
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This post originally appeared on the Teacher Beat blog.

California’s credentialing board plans to expedite new rules governing intern teachers—those who came into the profession on alternative routes—in what will likely require them to take more upfront training on how to teach English-language learners.

The decision came after more than two hours of emotional testimony from parents, teachers, researchers, and charter school officials at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s March 7 meeting.

Ultimately, the panel accepted an outline of policy options crafted by its staff. They will be used to develop new regulations on intern teachers, with the input of a “stakeholder” panel. Those options, among other things, include issuing waivers, requiring intern programs to offer English-learner training before the teachers enter classrooms, or allowing them to take a test measuring knowledge of English-learner pedagogy.

During public comment, supporters of tightened standards argued that all teachers need to be fully prepared to teach English-learners, and opponents said the changes could cut off a vital pipeline of teaching talent.

In their discussion, the commissioners said they were obligated to make sure all prospective teachers are prepared to work with English-learners. But they also noted the importance of preserving the intern track, which primarily supplies teachers in the shortage fields of science, math, and special education.

“I think the idea that for one small group of people we make an exception, especially when it’s [teachers of] English-learners, demands our immediate attention,” commission Vice Chairwoman Kathleen Harris said.

“A number of intern teachers said they wouldn’t be here if this proposal were enacted,” said Commissioner Nancy Ramirez. “I don’t think that’s accurate. I think they would be delayed. We’re not trying to eliminate any kind of program; we’re trying to improve and raise the standards.”

In California, intern teachers must take 120 hours of preparation coursework before they can become the “teacher of record” in their classrooms. They eventually must meet all the requirements or licensing in California through the state’s universities. There are about 2,200 interns now in California, according to commission records.

The state has 1.4 million English-language learners.

Lawsuit Pressure

The impetus behind the commission’s action appears to be the threat of a lawsuit from Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization. Before the hearing, the commission met in closed session to discuss a complaint from Public Advocates, which was not made pubic.

But in essence, the group contends that the commission automatically grants interns an ELL authorization. The settlement in the Williams v. California funding lawsuit requires teachers of English-learners to hold an authorization in that field.

“Basically, we accuse the commission of not following California’s own statute saying English-learners need to have specialized training,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates.

Debate about the proposed changes had reached a fever pitch in the days leading up to the meeting. Groups of supporters and opponents sent letters to the commission about the change.

“Labeling interns as fully authorized to teach ELs before they have actually completed their EL training deceives parents and the public,” said one letter signed by the California Federation of Teachers, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and the ACLU, among others. “Interns should be an option of last resort.”

A group of alternative-route providers and charter school groups, which hire many intern teachers, meanwhile, said in their letter that California law allows for interns to teach English-learners without additional specifications. They particularly objected to one possible policy option, which would require such teachers to be put on emergency credentials requiring parent notification. The groups said that option would severely restrict districts from hiring the teachers.

“The practical effect of requiring waivers would be to water down the intern credential, entangle this issue with federal matters which would further complicate the ability of districts and schools to hire intern teachers, and add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that would impede the ability of intern teachers to teach,” they said in the letter.

Much of the debate at the meeting focused on Teach For America, which currently has about 740 intern teachers in the state, or a little less than a quarter of the state’s 2,200 intern teachers. Individuals testifying at the hearing offered widely different accounts of how such teachers have fared.

The research literature on Teach For America’s impact is notoriously difficult to parse. One often-cited random-assignment study from 2004 found that students taught by the TFA teachers had larger math gains than students taught by other novice teachers. But others researchers, including some by CTC Chairwoman Linda Darling-Hammond, have found that TFA teachers don’t seem to become effective until they are fully certified. Newer research continues to complicate the picture. Analyses conducted by states indicate that TFA teachers are as good as veteran teachers in certain content areas in Tennessee, Louisiana, and North Carolina. But a 2011 study commissioned by the Texas Education Agency found that, while TFA teachers tended to boost math scores for high school students, Hispanic students taught by TFA teachers had significantly lower gains in reading than non-TFA novices.

Comments during the session came in fast and thick on both sides, too, with many parents speaking tearfully about the impact, good or bad, that an intern teacher had on his or her children. Many charter school officials also spoke.

Jessica Garcia-Kohl, a representative from the Rocketship Schools charter chain, lambasted the proposals, highlighting a lack of data showing that intern teachers are less effective with English-learners than other candidates. Not being able to hire interns would be a “huge detriment” to its students, she said.

“I’m hearing layer after layer of unnecessary bureaucracy, and a solution in search of a problem,” Garcia-Kohl said. “See what the data is telling you, and I think you’ll see a different story.”

But an instructional coach from Oakland, Calif., said working with intern teachers made him realize that they need more help on how to facilitate not only English-learners’ basic interpersonal skills, but their academic-language proficiency as well. “It’s unrealistic to think that interns will automatically be able to address the needs of ELLs,” he said.

In the end, the commission decided to convene a stakeholder group to help flesh out several options for new policy. Those options would include: clarifying the training requirements for interns, such as specifying what part of that 120 hours must be devoted to strategies for teaching English-learners; requiring interns to pass the California Teachers of English Learners (CTEL) exam; and developing a type of limited ELL authorization in which those interns who don’t have the requisite coursework could still teach under the supervision of practicing ELL teachers.

National Echoes

The issue in California reflects national concerns, too. Public Advocates sued the U.S. Department of Education in 2007 over a regulation that permitted intern teachers to be deemed “highly qualified” under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The organization claimed the rules conflicted with the statute.

A U.S. Court of Appeals panel ultimately agreed with that argument. But Congress, in two successive years, added riders to spending bills permitting such teachers to be considered highly qualified. The provision expires at the end of the year. Congress also requested a report on where teachers in alternative routes are located and whether they are disproportionately teaching groups of vulnerable children.

Public Advocates also has organized a Coalition for Teaching Quality of civil rights and education groups that protest the continuation of this loophole. (Darling-Hammond is listed as a “sponsor” on Public Advocates’ website and she has spoken as a guest at some of the CTQ sponsored events.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.