by Kelly Field Trout
After the recent rider allowing alternatively certified teachers to continue teaching through 2016 passed as part of the law that re-opened the government this fall, critics of alternative certification programs took to the blogosphere to re-launch a campaign to put these teachers out of work. That rider clarified the definition of a “highly qualified teacher” (HQT) to include teachers in the process of receiving their alternative certification. Traditional certification generally requires a post-secondary degree in education. Alternative certification allows people who have graduated from college with something other than a degree in education to become teachers. Requirements to obtain certification vary by state, but generally require a post-secondary degree and some type of ongoing teacher training. Both traditionally and alternatively certified teachers take the same qualifying tests required by each state.
Critics of alternative certification brought a suit against the Secretary of Education for including alternatively certified teachers in the regulatory definition of which teachers states can consider HQT. Their argument was, in part, that the regulation had the effect of concentrating higher numbers of alternatively certified teachers in communities of color, and that this effect meant those students were provided an inferior education. Although the Ninth Circuit ruled that the regulation contradicted No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which the court interpreted as requiring teachers to have already obtained their certification to meet HQT requirements, the court noted that it was Congress who decided traditionally certified teachers were more successful than alternatively certified teachers, even though such an assumption is decidedly debatable. Education research leaves much to be desired, but the research we do have suggests that whether or not a teacher is traditionally certified has no negative effect on any measure of student success. In fact, in some cases, researchers have found a positive effect. With this knowledge, Congress responded to the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of their HQT definition by passing a clarification that included alternatively certified teachers. This allowed the regulation to stay in place rather than to be overturned by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, which Congress viewed as a misinterpretation of their statute. The most recent rider only served to continue to allow that clarification, and thus the regulation, to stay in place.
“Highly qualified teacher,” or HQT, is a legal term. It’s used in NCLB as a term that defines the credentials Congress requires of teachers teaching in low-income schools to promote their goal of providing better education opportunities for those students. Functionally, it is a baseline – a list of the minimum requirements a person must meet to be employed as an educator in a low-income school. It does not mean what we colloquially would understand to be a person who is highly qualified to teach. And that confusion is being exploited to distract from the bigger picture: improving education for kids in traditionally underserved communities, most of which are primarily communities of color. Instead, groups who should be working together on this bigger picture are fighting a war over semantics, and the losers are the same kids these groups intend to serve.
Clearly the HQT definition is not working, whether it includes alternatively certified teachers or not. We have known our education system was no longer the best in the world since at least 1983. Despite our best efforts to return to the top, we have made little progress, in part because socio-economic status plays such a large role in stalling educational achievement. HQT intended to make sure only the best teachers were teaching in the schools that needed them most, but instead is serving as a point of criticism for some of the teachers making the biggest gains with that group. Critics of alternative certification programs who want to exclude them from qualifying as HQT and thus remove them from their classrooms are actually arguing for a solution that would dramatically increase inequities across racial lines. Should these critics succeed, unprecedented numbers of teachers in communities of color would be removed from their classrooms with no plan to replace them. Perhaps if we had evidence that these teachers were worse than traditionally certified teachers, removing them would still be warranted. However, the best research available shows the largest national alternative certification program, the one that is primarily responsible for placing alternatively certified teachers in communities of color, recruits and trains teachers who are at least as effective, if not more so, than their traditionally trained counterparts in their first years of teaching. These teachers also tend to stay as long as, if not longer than, their counterparts in low-income schools. Therefore, removing these teachers from these classrooms would have severe consequences for students of color.
The increased inequity that would result for these students if alternatively certified teachers were removed from classrooms is not the only consequence of a misguided focus on the HQT debate. The opportunity cost of the problems that could begin to be addressed if these two sides came together is enormous. Our education system in its current form is failing students of color. Organizations like Teach For America and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law should be pooling their resources to attack this problem as strongly as possible from as many angles as possible, yet they have alienated themselves over how to interpret an incredibly bad piece of legislation. NCLB has proved it is not going to close the achievement gap in this country. Waiting until the bill is reauthorized to resolve these differences is too great a cost to bear. The battle over how to define the high standards a teacher must reach to teach in our highest-needs schools can be fought when that time comes. Until then, the kids whom both sides are committed to helping will be best served if this semantic difference is set aside and these groups instead work together on new solutions for improving their educational opportunities.
Instead of focusing on the HQT debate, we should focus on how we will identify successful teachers in a post-NCLB world. We also have to figure out how to recruit more people who have the potential to be successful teachers to the field, how to provide teachers the resources necessary to become and stay successful, and how to get more teachers to stay in the profession so those resources are being used most efficiently. And that’s only on the human capital side. There are far too many systemic failures begging for solutions for us to continue devoting so many resources to the HQT debate. If we, the people and organizations who have devoted ourselves to ending racial inequities in education, are going to succeed in overhauling a failing public school system in our lifetimes, we need to pick our battles carefully. And we certainly need to stop battling each other over issues that, at best, prevent us from moving forward.