Thursday, August 23, 2007

U.S. SUED OVER TEACHER CREDENTIALS - A coalition of parents and advocates say federal rules are violating education law.

by Joel Rubin - From the Los Angeles Times

August 22, 2007 - A coalition of California schools advocates and parents sued the federal government's Department of Education on Tuesday, claiming it is violating the teacher quality provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, is thought to be the first of its kind in the country and, if successful, could affect more than 10,000 teachers-in-training now working in California classrooms.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the part of the sweeping school reform law that requires districts to hire "highly qualified" teachers -- those who have earned their teaching credentials -- to teach core subjects such as math and English. Under the regulations written by the Department of Education to enforce the requirement, however, districts can count novice teachers who are still in credentialing programs as meeting that standard.

"Every parent should have the right to know what's going on with their children. I am leaving my children in these teachers' hands, and I want them taken care of in the best possible way," said Sonya Renee, a Los Angeles parent and plaintiff in the lawsuit. "I am not against interns being in my children's schools. But they should not be out there in front of a classroom on their own."

Though the suit could have implications for all states, the situation is most extreme in California, where last year about 10,700 intern teachers were in charge of classrooms, said John Affeldt, an attorney for Public Advocates Inc., the civil rights group leading the lawsuit.

In California, most teachers earn their credential through a yearlong graduate school program. But an alternative option allows those who demonstrate knowledge in a particular subject to teach while studying for their credential through an internship program run by a school district or university.

Under the regulations challenged in the lawsuit, such teachers are considered highly qualified as soon as they begin their internship program despite having little or no teaching experience.

That loophole, Affeldt said, leaves parents in the dark about their children's teachers. It also compounds, he said, a larger issue in urban public school systems in which the least experienced teachers, who have little seniority, are often assigned to the most demanding, troubled schools in poor, minority neighborhoods.

No Child Left Behind prohibits districts from staffing these low-performing campuses with a disproportionate number of teachers who are not highly qualified, but because of the Education Department's loose definition, interns commonly end up at those campuses, lawyers for Public Advocates said.

In a statement on the lawsuit, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell acknowledged the problem. "We know that unfortunately in California public schools there remains an inequitable distribution of highly qualified teachers. Too often, schools serving students who are African American or Latino have a disproportionate number of underqualified and inexperienced teachers and administrators," he said. O'Connell added that his agency works with districts to distribute highly qualified teachers more equally.

In the lawsuit, Renee said her daughter's English and algebra classes at Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles last year were taught by interns. She said the school never notified her of the teachers' status -- another requirement of the federal law.

"I was shocked," she said in an interview. "This does have an effect on how well a student is going to do as they move on. They might not be carrying forward with them the information they need because their teachers haven't been trained."

Last year, 4% of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District were interns -- about 1,200 teachers, according to district figures.

Samara Yudof, acting press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, declined to comment on the complaint, saying education officials had not had an opportunity to review it.

Public Advocates, a liberal nonprofit, has twice successfully challenged state agencies over teacher quality issues.* It also filed an unsuccessful suit aimed at throwing out the state's required high school exit exam.

* as a litigant with the ACLU in the Williams Lawsuits. footnote smf.

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