Why Are Many of Our Children’s Teachers Still Students Themselves?
By Maribel Heredia
Plaintiff in Lawsuit Against the Department of Education
Four years ago, my son Joey — who was in first grade at the time — came home from school and said, “Mommy, my teacher wasn’t there today. She went to college.”
I figured he had to be mistaken; surely, his teacher had completed college and her professional training. I started asking questions. But instead of putting my mind at ease, the truth shocked me.
It turned out that the person responsible for teaching my son vital skills — how to read, spell, add and subtract — was still learning how to teach.
The more I learned, the more concerned I became. Joey’s situation wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t even unusual. Today, thousands of “intern teachers” like Joey’s are teaching in California classrooms, with the vast majority of them assigned to our poorest and most segregated schools and to special education classes. Joey was taught first grade by a teacher-in-training because the U.S. government permits this practice, irresponsibly defining those who enter classrooms with little to no prior training as “highly qualified.”
I immediately wanted to know why school administrators had not informed me about Joey’s teacher’s lack of qualifications. Is a medical student passed off as “highly qualified” and allowed to operate on patients? Do we let engineering students build bridges, or law students try cases?
You would think that something called the “parent’s right to know” provision in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) would help. It doesn’t. In a maddening twist, it mandates that parents be informed when their children are receiving instruction from teachers who are not — you guessed it — “highly qualified.” In other words, since federal law classifies interns like Joey’s teacher as “highly qualified,” my district was not required to tell me that she was still a student herself.
Some people might call that a loophole. I call it a lie. Parents need to stand up for our rights, and our children’s rights. I want to make sure that my kids and others in our community are taught by fully prepared teachers — and that when they aren’t, parents are at least told about it. If we know that our children and intern teachers will need extra support, we can plan to spend more time volunteering in the classroom and helping with homework. We can also opt to advocate for our children if they are assigned to intern teachers again the next year, which is an all-too-frequent occurrence for students in our lowest-performing schools.
I’m not saying that a credential guarantees a teacher will do a good job. I realize that there are credentialed teachers out there who are ineffective, and I believe that regularly and meaningfully evaluating all teachers is another important component of fixing our school system. But the existence of a few bad apples among experienced teachers should not excuse the practice of allowing untrained teachers to fill the classrooms of our neediest schools.
I also want to help put to rest the argument that districts like mine need Teach for America recruits and other interns because trained, experienced teachers won’t take jobs in low-performing urban schools. Two years ago, I was elected to my local school board, and I now know firsthand that it is possible to change policies and practices to face this problem head-on.
My district is still far from perfect, but every time we hire a teacher who is not fully certified, our HR office reviews the decision. We ensure that that there is not a better option, especially given the large pool of fully-credentialed teachers we’ve recently been forced to lay off. In the past five years, we have dramatically reduced the number of inadequately prepared teachers on staff from 163 in 2007-2008 to 49 this year.
A school district can only do so much. We need state and federal laws to create and fund the incentives and better working conditions that make trained, experienced and effective teachers want to teach in low-income, low-performing schools — and stay.
But I’m not about to just sit back and hope that Congress will address the problem of teacher quality. It’s up to parents to do what we do best — fight for our children. We need to start by telling Congress to stop calling teachers-in-training “highly qualified.”
Maribel Heredia is the mother of two public school children and a resident of Hayward, California. She is a plaintiff in Renee v. Duncan, a lawsuit charging the U.S. Department of Education with failing to enforce the right of all students to have a “highly qualified” teacher as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2008, Heredia was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Hayward Unified School District, which serves more than 20,000 students.