Oakland Schools Mislabel Some Teachers Unqualified

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 22, 2006

Earlier this fall, in compliance with a provision of the national No Child Left Behind Act, the Oakland Unified School District sent out some 13,000 letters informing parents of the names of teachers who do not meet the “highly qualified” standards required by the act. 

But through district error, at least some teachers who were named on the list actually did meet the NCLB qualifiations. In addition, representatives of both Oakland’s teachers’ union and the Oakland Unified School District agree that the NCLB requirements are flawed, which is to say that although teachers are not “highly qualified” under NCLB, it does not mean that the students in their classroom are not being properly taught. 

“It doesn’t mean that they are bad teachers,” OUSD spokesperson Alex Katz said in a telephone interview. “That’s merely the language in the federal requirement. You could have a Ph.D. in mathematics, for example, and be an excellent math teacher. But if you don’t have a state credential in math, you are considered to be ‘not highly qualified’ by the State of California and subject to the parental notice.” 

But the biggest complaint coming from community representatives was that some of the teachers on the mailed list should not have been there at all. 

OUSD board member Kerry Hammill wrote to a local parents’ email list in late October that she received teacher notification letters “for four of my kids’ teachers, and three of the four were errors. All four of the teachers mentioned in the letters sent to my home are outstanding—which is why this most recent episode left me just shaking my head.” 

And Oakland Education Association President Betty Olsen-Jones wrote that in at least some instances, teachers learned about their status in the most embarassing way possible, not from the district but from their own students.  

“The worst consequence of this,” Olsen-Jones wrote to parents, “was that teachers had to find out from students, in a number of cases, that they were considered ‘not highly qualified’—in a district where teacher morale is so low, this only makes teachers feel even more disrespected and smeared professionally. The Oakland Education Association spoke with district administrators … about this, and were very critical that teachers weren’t notified in advance, especially since in many cases letters were sent in error.” 

Hammill reported that she met with district representatives and said she also “asked … that they send copies of the notes to staff before the mailing to ensure that the info is at least correct. The letter also needs to do a better job of explaining that ‘highly qualified’ is a technical and bureaucratic term that has more to do with mandates than great teaching.” 

Information on the status of credentials for individual California teachers can be received from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialling at https:// teachercred.ctc.ca.gov/teachers/PublicSearchProxy. 

OUSD spokesperson Katz acknowledged by telephone that “a pretty high number of mistakes” were made in the letters, and that the district “tried to send out apology notices.” 

Hammill reported this week that she received “apology letters for the three teachers at Claremont MS and Oak Tech that were wrongly accused.” 

Hammill also reported that earlier “the principal at one of the schools” from which Hammill had received one of the teacher letters “sent an electronic call right away to all parents correcting the error and apologizing.” 

Hammill called that action “classy on his part, I thought.”  

But even the clarification attempt had its glitches. Bret Harte Middle School PTA President Lesley Johnson-Gelb reported on the parents’ list that she originally “received letters stating that four of my two kids’ teachers were not highly qualified.” 

A month later, she said, she received “two form letters from [the school] letting me know that ‘After review of additional information, we have determined that your child’s teacher(s) meet(s) the “highly qualified” criteria mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.” Unfortunately, these letters did not include the teachers’ names, so all I now know is that two of the four teachers are now considered ‘highly qualified’ and two are not.” 

Passed in 2002, NCLB required schools to meet the “highly qualified teachers” standards by the end of the 2005-06 school year, with authority for setting those qualifications left in the hands of the state. 

Authority for parental notification of teacher qualifications was written into the NCLB act itself, which reads, in part that: “At the beginning of each school year, a local educational agency that receives funds under this part shall notify the parents of each student … information regarding the professional qualifications of the student’s classroom teachers” 

Meanwhile, spokesperson Katz said that the district “is doing a whole bunch of things to help the affected teachers meet the state and federal mandates,” including providing opportunities for training. 

But that may not be where the real problem lies, according to Hammill.  

“The entire public education system is now being run to comply with mandates from dozens of elected bodies who don’t want to deal with real issues like funding and poor labor standards,” she wrote, “so they force districts into following endless rules that only dispirit staff and families and never improve learning.”