A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 13 2011

Why We Shouldn’t Care About “Highly Qualified” Status

A number of people are up in arms now that a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision–which determined that teachers working toward, but not yet at, full certification could not be considered “Highly Qualified” under NCLB rules–was, in essence, papered over by Congress after it inserted a provision in a resolution that rendered alternative-track teachers eligible for “Highly Qualified” status.

I’m glad; the 9th Circuit’s decision would have set a bad precedent that would have unnecessarily constrained opportunities for non-traditional teachers to enter the classroom. That is to say, in this time of educational crisis–where we have dually (1) a need to continually develop a 3-million-strong teacher workforce and (b) evidence that our traditional ed schools aren’t producing enough quality teachers to join this pool–we need to encourage more and more people to consider and enter education. Congress thankfully recognized this need and made it easier for the development of non-traditional teachers.

In my mind, I just don’t see how we can still be so fixated on the semantics of certain statuses. “Highly qualified” is a legal definition under NCLB.  It can be attained if one does 3 things: (1) earn a bachelor’s degree, (2) earn state certification and (3) prove content knowledge (usually by passing a test). It’s really not that hard to get there.

Yet some (that is, Ilana Garon) argue that allowing “teachers who generally leave when their commitment is up” (read: TFA teachers) to be considered “highly qualified” is bad because it…

…absolves school districts of their responsibility to attract and retain teachers who possess true skill and experience. Instead, it allows them to tell parents and students, particularly those in the high-needs schools where participants in alternative certification programs are overwhelmingly placed, that all teachers are “highly qualified” without any accountability.

Conveying “highly qualified” status, she argues, to those without “true” skill and experience would make it impossible to hold school districts accountable for the quality of its teachers.

I see where she is coming from. Yet, I think it’s possible to flip the issue on her: who’s to say that those who, in her view, “legitimately” earn “highly qualified” status are necessarily actually good at and well-qualified to teach what they teach? Should we, for example, be complacent with the teacher who graduated from the bottom of his class at the worst ed school in America, and who just barely passed his certification tests merely because he just eked by and earned “highly qualified” status by following the traditional rules? The answer is a clear no.

Which is to say that we should ultimately worry less about whether a teacher is classified as “highly qualified” and more about how good the teacher actually is. If a teacher can demonstrably show his or her effectiveness that should be enough.

Sadly, even though we should ignore the classification of teachers, the reality is that we cannot. Though I’m not fully abreast of the complexities of NCLB and the legal ramifications of “highly qualified” status, I am fairly certain that there are regulations that schools must abide around this term if they want to receive federal education funds, such as Title I money.

This reality is why I am glad and relieved that Congress made clear that alternative track teachers have just as much right as a traditional teacher to be considered “highly qualified.”

Certainly, too, the way the media has been framing the issue has been unhelpful. As Chad Aldeman of Education Sector notes, the media has developed an odd affinity to the word, “intern” which serves as a blanket term covering each and every alternative path into the classroom. In the context of education, the connotation of that word is extremely negative and does not do justice to the fact that not all alternative paths to teacher-dom are of the same quality. Even within the realm of alternative teacher certification there are wildly varying levels of teacher quality. Using the least friendly term to monolithically paint this entire field as “interns” is an easy, but disingenuous, way to sell papers. But selling papers is what the newspaper business is all about.


Of course, part of this whole hub-bub is the infatuation with endlessly criticizing TFA and all that it represents. TFA must have been, on principle, completely against anything the civil rights group that brought the issue to light! TFA’s leadership must be laughing at the ed community for deviously devising a way to get people with no intention of actually helping their students become “highly qualified” teachers! I exaggerate–but only a little.

Indeed, no ed school stalwart or Professor We-Need-To-Keep-Things-The-Way-They-Are is going to come out and say that a program that objectively does a decent, if not outstanding, job of efficiently preparing teachers to serve in some of America’s most challenging schools is worthy; such an admission would make said person look foolish. Really foolish. Hence, the perpetual hate.

The funny thing about this never-ending criticism is that it overlooks one very important reality: TFA teachers interview alongside, and perhaps against, other teachers vying for a teaching position. And, unsurprisingly, principals and school leaders intentionally opt to hire TFA teachers the way they do because they trust TFA. I think it is fair to say that, when possible, schools will put all these qualifications and statuses aside and simply hire the person they think will best meet the needs of the community. And, in many cases, particularly in poor, urban schools, TFA teachers are simply the best.

I chuckle to myself when reading criticisms of TFA that come from people who clearly have no real understanding of the potential that TFA has to prepare effective teachers, even from day one. Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post is the biggest culprit here. I know fellow CMs who have met her at ed policy events. One friend told me how Ms. Strauss found out he was a TFA teacher and instantly began to grill him with questions, probably looking for the perfect quote to make TFA look bad. She’s not alone. Too many other 3rd-party commentators spew wrongheaded, and at times discriminatorily-hateful “analyses” of the problem with TFA.

So let’s stop for a second and answer one simple question: when was the last time a school leader or principal wrote a piece decrying the presence of TFA teachers within schools? How about a district leader? Those making the staffing decisions in schools appear to be overwhelmingly in favor—or, at the very least, not strongly opposed to—TFA teachers. Others without conflicts of interest also express their support for TFA teachers, even if they move on after two years.

So can we please find a way to stop worrying about “highly qualified” and just love the teacher?

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2 Responses

  1. Patricia

    What are the incentives for principals and other school admins? I would hope it’s their students, but since public schools are paid regardless of student outcome (except perhaps those that are shut down), I think the incentive is more likely making sure the school runs within budget. It’s cheaper to get “intern” first year teachers vs. a proven “highly qualified” teacher. I understand your argument that principals hire TFA candidates and that they don’t just take someone’s job but think about it from a parents perspective. Would you rather take a chance on the new resident surgeon or go with the proven “highly qualified” surgeon? If you can afford it, of course you’ll go with the more experienced doctor. Poor children will always get the “intern” teachers until these teachers decide to stick around for a while.

    It’s not just a TFA thing, most teachers don’t stick around poor urban schools. THAT’s the real problem and I guess being shiny (and full of money) TFA gets the blame for a problem that has been existing for a long time.

    As I have seen with my colleagues, a great teacher isn’t something you can be in a year or even two, the art of teaching comes from experience over many years, just like the discipline of learning.

    TFA will never achieve its mission with the current formula but it has, over the years, gotten people TALKING about education which is a step.

    • You make a lot of good points. There are other reasons why TFA teachers might be “competitive” from a staffing standpoint. And, yes, I agree with you that a parent is right to seek those with more experience. Then again, some TFA teachers have done some amazing things, even in their first or second years.

      But your point about teachers and urban schools is really the most important. The teacher turnover at my school (and my roommate’s, and my other roommate’s) is unacceptably high. TFA might contribute to that, but it is by no means the sole source of the problem. The standard criticism of TFA as a revolving door experience misses the reality that non-TFA teachers leave at un-ideal rates too.

      And, yes, the more experience the better. No one can argue against that. (Though I still think you can’t analogize teaching with practicing medicine in quite that simplistic of a way).

      And, finally, yes, raising awareness about education is critical. TFA has helped do that in a big way.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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