Public schools across California have assigned thousands of teachers to classes without the proper credentials or legal authorization, a persistent problem that state and local education officials blame on mismanagement, budget shortages and a limited pool of qualified specialists.
Untrained teachers have been assigned to a variety of difficult classes, including those filled with English-language learners and others with special intellectual and physical needs. In many cases, these teachers lack training in a particular subject, such as English or math, that they’ve been assigned to teach.
Nearly 1 in 10 teachers or certificated personnel – more than 32,000 school employees – did not have the credentials or authorization for their positions from 2007 through 2011, according to data compiled by the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
The problem is greater at low-performing schools, where students are overwhelmingly low-income and Latino, a California Watch analysis found. The average rate of improperly assigned teachers at these schools was 16 percent over the same period.
“That isn’t something that should be acceptable to anybody,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
A window into the problem can be found in formal complaints filed with school districts. In one case, at the public Berkeley Technology Academy, a student failed the California High School Proficiency Examination after enrolling in a test-prep class.
The student later told her mother that the class included nothing she encountered on the exam, which allows students to receive the equivalent of a high school diploma.
“I paid good money for my daughter to participate … only to find out that the teacher may have been unqualified to teach it, and that she did not adequately prepare the students to take the final exam,” the student’s mother wrote in 2011 complaint to the Berkeley Unified School District.
In response, the district acknowledged that a noncredentialed staff member had taught the course. It offered the student 20 hours of private instruction and the option to enroll at the high school for a fifth year. Rather than find the right teacher, the school canceled the course.
In the 2010-11 school year, more than 12,000 teachers and certificated personnel at more than 1,000 low-performing schools – including more than 400 employees at 107 Bay Area schools – served in positions they should not have held. On average at these schools, 82 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, and more than three-quarters were Latino.
Research and interviews with state and local education officials suggest that staffing turnover and shortages, inadequate funding, poor planning and mismanagement contribute to assigning teachers to classes for which they lack specialized training.
This problem of “misassignments,” as they’re known, has improved dramatically since the 2005-06 school year, when the state began giving greater attention to teacher assignments at low-performing schools. At the time, 29 percent of teachers at these schools lacked licenses for their positions.
Teachers gaining authorization to instruct English-language learners have driven much of that progress. And so has the settlement in Williams v. California, a landmark class-action lawsuit that in 2004 required the state to ensure all students had qualified, credentialed teachers.
The Commission on Teacher Credentialing typically needs to work with only a handful of school districts that struggle to resolve improper assignments on their own, said Roxann Purdue, a consultant in the agency’s professional services division.
Yet the lengthy, laborious and often paper-heavy process of monitoring assignments means that teachers and other staff can remain in the wrong positions for months.
County offices of education typically begin compiling paperwork from school districts in late fall or winter. Once they identify teachers who lack necessary credentials or authorization and notify the district, the district has 30 days to address the problems. By the time it’s all resolved – teachers must be reassigned, get the appropriate credentials, receive emergency or short-term permits or local authorizations, obtain waivers or resign – the school year could be nearly over.
In the 2011-12 school year, for example, Alameda County notified the Oakland Unified School District on May 15 to correct any remaining teacher assignment problems by June 30 – 15 days after the school year ended, records show. A letter listed 50 teachers whose qualifications were unclear or who held inappropriate assignments.
“If we had a whole bunch of people working on it, we could identify the misassignment sooner. You’re talking about one manager, one analyst – that’s all we are,” said Stephanie Tomasi, Alameda’s credentials manager.
Improper assignments often are the result of school administrators who do not know that even elective or short-term courses require appropriate certification, Purdue said. Middle and high schools in particular, she said, are offering more experimental courses that are less straightforward to staff than, say, a physics class.
Still, even longtime teachers of core academic subjects can get caught up in the problem.
Charlie Parker had taught biology and math for more than 20 years, including 11 at McAlister High School in Los Angeles. The last time he took a social studies class, he was a teenager with an Afro and Jimmy Carter was president of the United States.
Yet, in 2009, he was assigned to teach dozens of high schoolers U.S. history, world history and economics – subjects that he was not credentialed to teach and that never appealed to him when he learned them more than 30 years ago.
On his first day teaching social studies, Parker struggled to keep his course materials straight and handed a student the wrong textbook. Some days, his students’ questions went unanswered or were directed to the Internet. Later, Parker said, when his students took state tests, their scores were low.
After school, he said, “I was doing homework, just like the kids.”
In certain locations and subjects, such as math, science and special education, incorrect assignments could reflect teacher shortages. These shortages are most critical in schools concentrated with low-income and minority students and in districts with fewer resources, a state task force reported in September.
“You can’t leave it up to local principals to find good teachers and well-prepared teachers if they don’t exist,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, chairwoman of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, who also co-led the task force. “Ultimately, you have to invest in getting enough teachers in shortage fields and invest in getting enough teachers who will teach in shortage locations.”
It took Oakland Unified five months last year to find a permanent teacher for a class of 12 severely disabled children at Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy. Seven substitutes led the class before a teacher from Washington state could take over Nov. 1, more than two months after the start of the school year.
Of the 30 to 40 applications Principal Charles Wilson saw prior to the teacher’s hiring, seven applicants had appropriate credentials and three were interviewed. None was a good fit for the position, he said.
Low-performing schools like his are sometimes accused of “intentionally trying to hire young, kind of throwaway teachers because they’re cheap,” Wilson said. “But the reality of it is those kinds of (qualified, experienced) teachers don’t apply to these kinds of schools. They don’t take an interview.”
Even though his elementary school has a positive reputation as being supportive of teachers, Wilson said, “people are scared. … It’s too much of a stress they don’t want to take on.”
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.
California Watch is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.californiawatch.org. Lin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.