The rate was startling: Nearly six in 10 teachers at California's lowest-performing schools were not properly credentialed for the classes they led. It's a rate California has worked to shrink for the past six years. It's also a rate that was wrong.
The percentage of teachers and other certificated staff lacking proper credentials was actually 29 percent, not the 58 percent the state reported for the 2005-06 school year. The revelation, sparked by errors in state data identified by California Watch, means the state has been using an incorrect baseline as it measures progress at its lowest-performing schools.
Misassignments, as they're known, have decreased dramatically since the state agreed to give the problem greater attention at low-performing schools. Unlike higher-performing schools, which are monitored every four years, the lowest-performing schools are monitored annually. The action was one of many stemming from the settlement of Williams v. California, a landmark class-action lawsuit that sought to ensure all students were taught by qualified, credentialed teachers.
The 2005-06 school year was the first year of this increased scrutiny, and the misassignment rate "seemed incredible and insanely high," said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California and the attorney overseeing the Williams settlement's implementation.
The following year, the state reported that the same low-performing schools had pushed misassignments down to 12 percent.
"The fact that it dropped off that quickly, that far … it seemed really dramatic," Allen said.
Although the initial scope of the problem is half as large as reported, it still "indicates there was a gigantic problem, and that there was substantial progress made once attention was paid to it," he said.
The Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which collects and reports misassignment data from counties, will present the latest figures [PDF] at its monthly meeting today. It will also explain the erroneous data from 2005-06, said Erin Sullivan, an assistant consultant in the commission's office of governmental relations.
California Watch alerted the commission in July to thousands of duplicate records in six years of misassignment data it received through a public records request. The commission responded last month that all records in 2005-06 were duplicated; it could not determine how the error occurred and was unable to reproduce it. Sullivan said that while there were some duplicate records in subsequent years, those duplicates were intentional because of how data was reported.
The commission has made changes to its online reporting system "that we expect will seriously mediate if not block the possibility of duplicate reporting by counties and provide us with additional tools for identifying potential duplicate reporting on a more detailed level," Sullivan said in an email. In an interview, she said a warning message will pop up if a county enters duplicate data and will ask if the entry was intentional.
The commission provided California Watch with revised data last week, and Sullivan said it would correct previously published reports as well. While the figures show an overall decline in misassignments, they also highlight the problem's persistence. In 2010-11, the most recent year of data available, 13 percent of certificated staff – more than 12,000 in all, most of whom were teachers – at the lowest-performing schools did not have the appropriate credentials for their assignments.
Teachers without the credentials to teach core academic subject areas – English, math, science and social science – composed 20 percent of misassignments in 2010-11. About 13 percent of teachers serving English language learners were not authorized to do so. Seventeen percent of misassignments were for nonteaching program coordinators.
The overall misassignment rates in prior years, based on a different cohort of low-performing schools, were even higher: 18 percent in 2007-08, 14 percent in 2008-09 and 19 percent in 2009-10.
"Why is it that there seems to be this persistent and stubborn … floor at 12, 13, 14 percent that we don't seem to be able to break through?" Allen said.
That's an issue the Legislature and the commission should address, said John Affeldt, who served as lead counsel on the Williams lawsuit and is a managing attorney at Public Advocates.
"We should be thinking about ways to really get that number down," he said. "If not 0, 1 or 2 or 3 percent should be exception, not the rule."
Affeldt said the misassignment rate was "especially frustrating" in light of the thousands of teachers, many of whom were fully credentialed for their assignments, laid off from California schools in recent years.
"I don't think it's an issue of just saying times are tough, fiscal budgets are tight, because we've actually created an opportunity where there's a bigger supply that maybe didn't exist before," he said. "It seems we should have made more of a dent in the number."
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.