Monday, October 30, 2006

Teachers Blind-sided By Administrative Buffoonery

Imagine that you're a teacher, and the first time that you hear that there might be a problem with your credential is from your students' parents. That's what happened recently to a number of teachers in Oakland, California:
Since last weekend, about 13,000 letters have been making their way to families across the Oakland school district, announcing that their child's teacher isn't "highly qualified" under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The letters were carefully worded and explained the complicated context behind the federal rules, which differ from state requirements.

The problem was that many teachers first learned about their possible credentialing shortcomings at school — from the kids.

"When I arrived for my first-period class, my students all said to me, 'Mr. Gerson, you're not highly qualified in physics,"' said Jack Gerson, a mathematics and physics teacher at Leadership Preparatory High School on the Castlemont campus.

Gerson, who has a master's degree in math from Stanford University and a doctorate in biostatistics from the University of California, Berkeley, filled a physics vacancy this fall but isn't yet certified to teach the subject.

Most of Gerson's students have had him for other classes, so he didn't feel his credibility was on the line. Still, he said, "They ought to be notifying teachers in advance."

Notifying parents of teacher qualifications has been a federal law since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002. But until now, each Title I school was responsible for sending its own letters. This year in Oakland, the letters were sent out by the central administration.

Several parents who received the notices said they took them with "a grain of salt." They said they had already evaluated their children's teachers according to more important criteria, such as whether the children seemed to be learning or were interested in school.

"I do feel like my daughter is getting a good education. I feel that she is being challenged," said Melissa Brauer, a parent at Edna Brewer Middle School.

But Brauer said she thought the federally mandated notices were a classic case of good intent creating unintended consequences. "It creates a potential idea of crisis or chaos that doesn't need to be there for the family or the child who (don't) know what it means," she said.

Brauer said another reason for her skepticism is the notoriously inconsistent record-keeping in the district's human resources department, which has experienced 70 percent turnover in recent years, according to the most recent Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistant Team report.

Laura Moran, the school district's chief service officer, said her team has spent the last year "cleaning" and updating the database of teacher credentials.

Moran said between 75 and 80 percent of district teachers are highly qualified by federal standards. That means they have a bachelor's degree or higher, and a preliminary or professional teaching credential. Middle and high school teachers also need to pass an exam in each subject area they teach.

For special education teachers who teach multiple subjects to high school students, that could mean passing numerous tests.

Moran said staff held 20 information sessions on the subject last spring and sent lists of who was qualified — and who was not — to all principals.

She said teachers who were incorrectly identified would receive letters of apology, and parents would receive letters noting the error. She also said that next year, her team would directly notify the teachers in question before mailing the notices.

"We're sorry for any stress that it's caused," Moran said.

Steve Luntz, a math and science teacher at Montera Middle School, said he and other teachers went through a credential review during the last school year. He said he was told he was "more than covered."

He learned this week from a parent that his credentials were in question.

Luntz's colleague, Natalie Mann, received National Board Certification in 2004. The advanced, nationally recognized credential held by fewer than 2 percent of Oakland teachers required 160 hours of writing, videotaping, lesson plan submission and self-evaluation. But Mann, who teaches seventh-grade pre-algebra, found herself on the list.

In class this week, after surveying her class to see how many received the letter — everyone — Mann said she pointed to her National Board Certificate on the wall. "But I'm not sure that will inspire hope in their families," Mann said.
Well... the district did apologize, which is all that they could do. Still... we wonder who, if anyone, is being actually being held accountable for this major screw-up error in the district's lodge administrative suite.

As a practical matter, here in California just about every teacher (regardless of actual teaching ability) with more than 7 or 8 years in the classroom is deemed "highly qualified" by the state in order to satisfy the mandates of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act
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