College & Workforce Readiness

Appeals Court Curbs U.S. Rule on Alternative Certification

By Mark Walsh — October 01, 2010 5 min read
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A federal appeals court decision striking down a rule making it easier for some alternative-route teachers to be considered “highly qualified” underscores a division between proponents of the traditional path to teacher certification, through colleges of education, and advocates for alternative programs such as Teach For America.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, voted 2-1 last week to reverse its own July 2009 decision rejecting a challenge to the federal regulation, which lets teachers who are making “satisfactory progress” toward alternative certification, but haven’t yet completed it, be considered “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act.

A group of California activists had argued that the federal rule permits a disproportionate number of educators with “intern” status to teach in California schools with large proportions of minority and low-income students.

The main group representing teachers’ colleges said in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the 9th Circuit court that it does not object in principle to alternative routes to teaching, which the group acknowledges is expressly encouraged under the No Child Left Behind law.

But the brief filed by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and other groups objects “to the premature ordination of those merely participating in such programs as ‘highly qualified’ teachers before they have completed their program or achieved full state certification—particularly given the widely varying quality of the many alternative routes to certification and the chronic lack of mentoring and support that typifies many of them.”

On the other side, a brief representing Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, and other groups argues that “a growing body of data demonstrates that alternatively certified teachers (including those participating in alternative-certification programs) are just as effective as—and by some metrics more effective than—traditionally certified teachers.”

A Matter of Debate

The NCLB law requires teachers to have full state licensure, in addition to a bachelor’s degree and evidence that they know each subject they teach. But a regulation promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education in 2002 allows uncertified candidates in alternative-route programs to teach for up to three years while they seek certification.

The regulation was challenged in a 2007 lawsuit filed on behalf of minority parents and children in Hayward, Los Angeles, and Richmond, Calif., as well as groups such as California ACORN and Californians for Justice. The suit alleged that the federal rule allowed a disproportionate number of teachers with California “intern” credentials to teach in schools with the highest concentrations of minority and low-income students.

Under California’s credentialing system, teaching interns are on a path to alternative certification but have not yet achieved it. In its Sept. 27 decision in Renee v. Duncan, the 9th Circuit majority held that the federal regulation went too far in relaxing the NCLB statute’s definition of “highly qualified” teachers.

“We conclude that the [U.S. education] secretary’s regulation impermissibly expands the definition of ‘highly qualified teacher’ contained in [NCLB] by including in that definition an alternative-route teacher who merely ‘demonstrates satisfactory progress toward’ the requisite ‘full state certification,’” U.S. Circuit Judge William A. Fletcher wrote.

The disparate assignment of intern teachers to minority classrooms means the plaintiff families have suffered “injuries in fact” that give them standing to sue, Judge Fletcher said. But in the larger debate over the traditional versus the alternative path to teaching, the majority joined with the dissent in expressing sympathies with the alternative route.

Judge Fletcher suggested it was “debatable” whether Congress was correct that teachers with full state certification are, in fact, better than teachers without such certification, and without elaborating, he said the question was “especially debatable if many of the interns come from programs such as Teach For America.”

Writing in dissent, Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman said he did not believe the plaintiffs had standing against the federal Education Department because their real complaint was with California and its teaching-certification definitions.

Judge Tallman characterized the lawsuit as an attack on Teach For America participants, who he suggested were being enlisted by school districts to fill teaching positions in poor and minority schools “because many ‘highly qualified teachers’ would rather work in affluent-area schools than low-income-area schools.”

Summer Training

Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman, said via e-mail: “We are disappointed in the ruling because high-quality alternative-route programs can play an important role in placing great teachers in the classroom.” He didn’t address whether the ruling would be appealed.

Carrie James, a spokeswoman for Teach For America, based in New York City, said in an e-mail that her organization was reviewing the decision. “We are confident that the decision will be appealed or that Congress will act to ensure that effective alternatively certified teachers continue to be classified as ‘highly qualified,’” she said.

Tara Kini, a staff lawyer with Public Advocates Inc., a San Francisco-based nonprofit law firm that represents the plaintiffs who challenged the federal regulation, said that “we, too, agree that high-quality alternative-route programs are a great way to get great teachers into the profession.”

“But we shouldn’t delude ourselves and call them ‘highly qualified,’” she added. “A teacher who has never set foot in the classroom but had a few weeks of training over the summer is not highly qualified.”

Still, Ms. Kini and others maintained that the suit was not an attack on Teach For America, which recruits and trains college graduates for teaching jobs in high-needs schools. She noted that California has some 10,000 teaching interns, of whom about 600 come from TFA.

“The states need to come up with plans to ensure interns are distributed equitably” among all types of public schools, Ms. Kini said.

C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Alternative Certification, a private group in Washington, said the court ruling was significant not just for California but for other states because of the sharp rise of alternative programs in recent years.

“It could have a dramatic impact on alternate-route programs around the country because almost all of them conditionally certify teachers so they can begin teaching before they’ve completed their programs,” said Ms. Feistritzer, who signed on to the TFA friend-of-the-court brief supporting the regulation.

She said there was a reason that teaching interns were often found in poor and minority classrooms.

“You don’t find them in the suburbs, because there’s no demand for them in the suburbs,” Ms. Feistritzer said, agreeing with Judge Tallman that many experienced, “highly qualified” teachers fill those suburban teaching jobs.

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Appeals Court Curbs U.S. Rule on Alternative Certification

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