The U.S. educational system has been under fire for quite a while now, as class sizes continue to expand, federal and state funding shrinks, and the country lags behind the rest of the world in all of the important categories. Detractors have suggested that the quality of teachers may be one of the key problems, while teachers defend their best efforts under difficult circumstances and unspectacular pay. Well, those detractors may now have something else to point to, as legislation was just passed last Wednesday confirming that training teachers with as little as five weeks of schooling can still be considered “highly qualified”. The U.S. House appropriations subcommittee extended that definition for another two years, meaning that students training to be educators, and even aspiring teachers without any sort of degree, can apply for positions requiring that standard.
Teach for America, a nonprofit group that works to recruit and expand the ranks of teachers, has a five-week training course they run each summer. They accept college graduates, run them through the program, and then place them in schools with desperate needs. Anyone who goes through this program only has to agree to two years of teaching, and can also keep working on their own additional degrees while working in a school. It’s great that they want to teach, but should they be thought of as highly qualified? Clearly they’re not, especially when compared against dedicated educators or tenured teachers with more than a decade of experience. Yet this House committee continues to support TFA with their legislation as well as millions of dollars in funding. Perhaps the fact that Teach for America employs a group of lobbyists on Capitol Hill has something to do with it, but in the end all that matters is their ruling’s impact on our children.
The problem is, even these lesser-qualified teachers are being funneled into only a small percentage of America’s schools, those that serve the lowest income groups. These schools arguably need the best, most qualified teachers to make a real difference, and teachers with a little over a month of schooling certainly do not count as that. In addition, other needy groups, such as children with disabilities, do not get the same sort of attention or focus.
This issue goes back to 2010, when Congress approved the legislation that allowed students in training programs to be referred to as “highly qualified teachers”. The No Child Left Behind law, which has been almost universally panned as a failure since it went on the books, demanded that each classroom in America have a highly qualified teacher. But instead of addressing the quantity and quality of our educators, legislators seem to be taking the easy way out and changing the definition of “qualified”. With President Obama’s Race to the Top educational program also on the edge of losing funding and support, it seems that factions of the government are satisfied returning to these unworkable NCLB measures. It is disheartening that such slippery language would be used in something as important as our children’s education. Would a person studying for a degree in criminal justice be referred to as a “Senior Detective”? Probably not. Clearly this debate will continue on into the future. Hopefully someone will eventually come along with new ideas to meaningfully address the issues, not just tweak the definition of “highly qualified”.
Evan Fischer is a freelance writer and part-time student at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.