Intern teachers not “highly qualified,” federal court rules

The new Teach for America or Oakland Teaching Fellows teacher at your school may be stellar, but a federal appeals court has ruled today that she shouldn’t be deemed “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The ninth circuit appellate panel reversed its earlier decision and ruled 2-1 in favor of community groups who sued the U.S. Department of Education in 2007. The plaintiffs argued it was misleading to call California’s intern teachers — those who are placed straight into the classroom with little formal teacher training and pursue their full credential as they teach — highly qualified.

In the NCLB context (and I quote from the Department of Ed’s website), the term means teachers must have:

1) a bachelor’s degree, 2) full state certification or licensure, and 3) prove that they know each subject they teach.

You can read the full court ruling here. This will mean that school districts will need to notify parents if their child has a teacher with an intern credential — a status that includes more than 10,000 teachers in California. It might apply to about 100,000 teachers nationwide who have not completed their training, according to Public Advocates, the San Francisco-based law firm that litigated the case.

“It doesn’t mean they can’t teach,” said Wynn Hausser, of Public Advocates. But, he said, he hoped it would lead to a more equitable distribution of intern teachers, which are typically placed in hard-to-fill positions — often, in low-income areas.

“It’s really hard to solve a problem if you can’t see a problem,” he said.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Turanga_teach

    I know intern teachers; I was an intern teacher. I have, in the past, formally supported a number of intern teachers, before OUSD cut their ENTIRE BUDGET for supporting these professionals through NTSD.

    These folks aren’t “a problem”–they are a Band-Aid on a problem that is a festering, gangrenous sore. Teacher attrition in special education (one of those “hard to fill” positions disproportionately staffed with intern teachers) is vastly higher than attrition in general education; teachers in the flats schools tend to burn out before their colleagues up the hill. Very few people with a background in math and science are willing to accept our salaries to teach those subjects: bring in the young interns, use ’em up and toss aside.

    The solution can’t stop at just letting parents know who has an intern teacher status: it isn’t honestly like anyone anywhere near that piece of paper has any say in an non-intern alternative. It’s time–it’s been time–for our district, our state, and our nation to look at the deeper issues instead of blaming individuals for doing the best they can in untenable situations.

  • Oakland Teacher

    This ruling is HUGE! I have often wondered how we can take someone with a generic degree, have them pass a basic skills test (CSET), and they were considered highly qualified.

    Good point re special ed teachers. I have heard that over 50% of OUSD special ed teachers are interns. Pretty telling that they most fragile population gets the teachers with no experience. OUSD doesn’t even hire special ed teachers that are fully credentialed. They only hire interns.

    It is very sad about BTSA being gutted. They had a lot of really great expereinced teachers to help support the new teachers.

  • Catherine

    Oakland Teacher:

    The basic skills test is CBEST. The CSET is a three part test that covers English/Social Studies, Math/Science, and P.E./Humanities/Music.

    I honestly wish my own child’s teacher had to and could pass the CSET. She was credentialed a very long time ago, even before her university in Oakland was accredited. Two current interns working here in Oakland attend the same university – and while I do not think it is the practice of the university – both of these teachers said, “there are more important things for my elementary students to know than what is in the state standards. I will close my door and teach what is important.”

    Neither of these intern teachers can pass the RICA (the exam to teach reading and language arts skills). My fear is that many schools in Oakland will now be forced to accept a string of substitute teachers.

  • Chauncey

    Good and abut damn time!

    Why is it that schools in the ghetto have most of these intern teachers? They cannot deal with ghetto students.

    How many people would trust “Intern” doctors instead of highly qualified docs?

    I hope this ruling sticks.

  • rumbler

    There is no correlation between how credentialed a teacher is and student test-score achievement. Teacher credential programs are not effective.

    There is correlation between 3rd grade reading test scores and a state’s need for jails. There is also a correlation between test scores and lifespan.

    HQT? NCLB? Gee.

  • Katy Murphy

    As an aside, it’s quite possible that the third-grade reading scores/inmate population projection is just an urban legend, though a very popular one. Education reporters from various states have tried to track down evidence to support the claim. As far as I know, they’ve been unsuccessful.

    Bill Graves from the Oregonian blogged about it here: http://bit.ly/a8kxER

  • Gordon Danning

    TFA teachers might not meet the legal criteria for “highly qualified teachers,” but the ones who have taught at Oakland High have, as a group, probably been better than the average credentialed teacher. That is based on anecdotal evidence, of course, since that is the only evidence we currently have re: individual teacher quality

  • Teacher

    Although this is only one measure of TFA intern vs. tenured “highly qualified” teacher, check these results out from the same batch of 10th graders at our school:

    Advanced or Proficient = 47 percent
    Far Below Basic or Below Basic = 24 percent

    World History
    Advanced or Proficient = 6 percent
    FBB or BB = 70 percent

    Now tell me which teacher was covering more of the standards and reaching more kids? Tell me which one you would consider to be highly qualified at his craft.

    If you said the Biology teacher, I would have to tell you that that teacher is not highly qualified under this new ruling. That teacher was a TFA.

  • TheTruthHurts

    I agree with others. Hopefully this will get folks addressing the real problem in Oakland – attrition.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Can you clarify, Katy, if this includes teachers who have their “preliminary credential” after a year-long credential program, but still have to “clear” it through the BTSA process?

    That number will be VERY large, as it includes nearly ALL first, second and third year teachers, not just the TFA/OTF kids.

    But that’s how the decision seems to read.

  • Katy Murphy

    Good question. I checked with John Affeldt, the managing attorney for Public Advocates, who says it applies only to interns, not the teachers with preliminary credentials that you mentioned.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Thank you!

  • https://sites.google.com/site/abernethymath/home Abernethy


    That may be true in your opinion in Social Science at Oakland High, but NOT in the Math Department. We are still dealing with the gaps in kids knowledge who had test driven new who teachers skipped whole chapters to teach only EXACTLY what’s on the CST (because it would make the teacher look good)

    So the credentialed/veteran teachers are left making up the difference in the next course. There are topics necessary for future courses that are NOT emphasized on the CST. These new teachers don’t understand that because they are focused on the one course they have ever taught.

    One year most of a certain TFA’s students had to drop out of pre-calculus the following year because they were not prepared, even though they got A’s and B’s in his class. But the district LOVED this guy because of benchmark scores. (name starts with a Z).

    New, young, and energetic (and let’s not forget cheaper to hire) does necessarily not mean better …
    Teaching is a profession and an art .. not something you can pick up overnight.

  • Gordon Danning


    I was referring to the TFA teachers in general, over the last 10+ years. The Oakland High social studies dept has never had a TFA teacher.

    And my main point was to express skepticism re: the court’s blanket finding that TFA teachers cannot be “highly qualfied,” but that every credentialed teacher IS “highly qualified.” I imagine that the law is written in such a way that the court’s decision was unavoidable, but that means that the law should be changed.

    PS: It is true that there is no substitute for experience, but there is also no substitute for smarts, which are (is?) necessary to learn from experience. TFA teachers tend to be pretty darn smart.

    PPS: None of this should be taken as an argument that TFA is the way to go; I personally think the way to go is to require a credential, but to make credential programs far, far more rigorous than they are now. (Now, there’s a story for Katy). But to say that all are not “highly qualified” but that all credentialed teachers are, is clearly inaccurate.

  • Ms. McLaughlin

    As a onetime English intern in the OUSD, I think this is a sound ruling. I was kind of an odd duck in the program, having chosen the internship route because I’d made a connection with the students of Oakland and didn’t want to take time away from them to earn my preliminary credential.

    But teaching school full time while going to college full time left me absolutely exhausted for much of that year. Most of my credential classmates were TFA members, and it was disturbing to hear some of them discuss their plans to “keep the kids quiet” in class so they would have time during the school day to complete their own college assignments. (Let me hasten to say that NONE of these people were placed at Oakland High. The other English interns I’ve known there have been extremely dedicated and would never have behaved so reprehensibly.)

    I went the opposite route and wound up re-taking a couple of my credential courses the following year. My professors were sometimes wonderful, sometimes less than, when I would say, “Look, I can turn this assignment in a week late, and it shouldn’t make that much difference. But my students will have one freshman or junior English teacher in their lives, and that’s me, so they come first.”

    But even with those priorities very clear, there were a few mornings when I slept through the alarm clock. More often, there were evenings when I made the mistake of sitting on the couch after school and sleeping through my evening courses, or when I simply opted not to go because it was more important that I read student essays or make crucial parent calls which, as we all know, can turn into valuable half-hour conversations when we’d planned on only five minutes.

    I don’t regret the internship, but looking back, I don’t think it’s the wisest path toward certification, so I’m glad to see the option going away. My understanding, though, is that Oakland only hires interns now for math, science, and special ed positions where the pool of credentialed applicants is not sufficient to fill all the vacancies. I wish those young people well and do hope they stay in Oakland! To my knowledge, all of my TFA classmates are long gone from the OUSD, and that’s another concern. While a revolving supply of bottom-salary-rung teachers may save the district money, I question whether such frequent turnover has best served the children attending our schools.

  • Hot R

    I started teaching in Oakland while attending class at Holy Names and working towards a credential. I had great professors who really taught us the way it was (Kitty Kelly Epstein). I have stayed in touch with more than a few, and some are even still teaching in Oakland!

    The court was applying a pro forma definition and “had” to rule they were not qualified, but in the real world, those teachers are some of the most motivated in the world (teach the toughest classes for the lowest pay without any real guidance?!) and just as good as the graduates of ed. schools, who simply do not prepare their charges for what they must face (I know, because I’ve since guided student teachers from Cal, Mills, CSUEB, and JFK). In teaching you learn by “doing” and “seeing.”

    As for the criticism that the TFA does not prepare students for the next level, shouldn’t that be a shared responsibility with the department head and the administrator? At my school in Oakland they were MIA. Good schools provide structure for young teachers to become successful. Bad schools do not.

  • Ms. McLaughlin

    I absolutely agree that much of what Ms. Abernethy calls the art of teaching is learned on the job. The process of earning a credential in California is rather more complex and time-consuming than it really needs to be, and there is a limit to how much practical expertise can be gained by sitting in a room full of graduate students discussing this or that theory of education.

    Just as one example, one of my favorite credential professors, one of two or three whose classes I found truly useful, seemed a bit lost the night one of my classmates showed up with a brand new black eye after a nonsensical brawl that day at her school. His initial response was something like “Such a shame…now on to our required reading” until several of us insisted “Whoa, whoa…can we go back to Ms. Day-from-Hell’s shiner, and give her some time to process that experience here, and discuss how we might avoid black eyes of our own?”

    He was polite, as always, and patient with such a pesky and unexpected detour from the evening’s agenda, but his response was disappointing: “Well, when Oakland is ultimately restructured, the charter schools will eliminate these kinds of problems.”

    (((say WHAT?)))

    As for TFA, the flaw that may lead to its eventual undoing, court ruling or no court ruling, is that most of its participants have one foot out the door from the moment they arrive in the classroom. Sure, they’re brilliant, idealistic, and energetic, but one thing few of them are motivated to do is hang in for the long term.

    And it’s hardly fair to blame them personally, because Teach for America sells its program as a two-year “Peace Corps” kind of a gig on the way to something else. TFA even has employer partnerships with such corporations as J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, and Google that guarantee priority hiring status to TFA inductees once they’ve satisfied their two-year commitment. (See http://www.teachforamerica.org/after-the-corps/employer-partnerships/ )

    This wasn’t as widely recognized five or seven years ago as it is now. Back then, at least at Oakland High, TFA interns experienced no lack of, um, hands-on administrative attention.

    Since then, however, the OUSD has seen a parade of them come and go. If busy administrators and department heads are no longer rushing to invest a lot of time and energy in mentoring their TFA teachers, it’s likely because they know that their TFA teachers won’t be around for very long.

  • me

    I was going to do Teach for America, but then I decided it would be easier and better to get my Master’s in education and then teach. I didn’t think five weeks of summer preparation would be enough for me to feel confident in the classroom. Now that I have started my Master’s, I see how much I have to learn! I’m glad I have a full year to do it instead of five weeks! I don’t think you can call TFA “highly qualified” because in my state a licensure program is required. You must compile a portfolio on your action research and the specific examples of how you have met the licensure indicators (about 60 of them). However, that does not mean that TFAs are not great teachers. Some TFAs are better than some teachers with 10+ years of experience.

  • JR

    “Some TFAs are better than some teachers with 10+ years of experience”. The “garbage in, garbage out” axiom applies here. How long a person has been performing a function does not necessarily mean that he or she is better(effort and ability can overcome experience)as a matter of fact studies have been done that show that teachers learn all they need to know to run a classroom, and do their jobs effectively in mere 5 years. I would tend to believe that because some of the best teachers(by wide reputation) that I have witnessed fall into years 4-12.