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Hiring ‘highly qualified’ new teachers for Philadelphia

Emergency-certified teachers are on the way out, but a loophole in federal law allows new teachers to have no prior classroom experience.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School District of Philadelphia has expanded its teacher recruitment efforts, but will need to do more in order to meet federal requirements regarding "highly qualified" teachers.

That is because the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) cracks down on the frequent practice of hiring "emergency-certified" teachers. In Pennsylvania, teachers who are emergency-certified have not passed the state-required Praxis teacher licensure tests in basic skills and/or the content area in which they are teaching. In addition they may not have had classroom teaching experience.

Philadelphia’s recent hires include some emergency-certified teachers and many others who are considered "highly qualified" under NCLB yet had no classroom experience before starting the job.

But this year’s crop of new teachers as a group is better prepared than new teachers have been in recent years. Approximately 70 percent of new teachers hired by the District this fall are deemed "highly qualified" under the federal law.

The District reports that it had hired 784 new teachers by the first day of class, more than half of them fully certified. Many other new teachers are also deemed "highly qualified" because they hold "Intern certificates" and are enrolled in alternative route certification programs. (By mid-November, almost 1,000 teachers had been hired.)

NCLB allows states to streamline the licensure procedure for entry into teaching and to count new teachers as "highly qualified" if they obtain certification through alternate route programs or pass teacher-licensing exams required by the state.

Teachers possessing "Intern certificates" in Pennsylvania are considered "highly qualified," although they may never have taught in a classroom and are not required to have course work in teaching methods before entering the classroom. Intern certificates are given to teachers who possess a bachelor’s degree, have passed the basic skills and content area Praxis tests required by the state, and are enrolled in a state-approved alternate route program. These teachers are required to participate in a period of university-supervised teaching during their first year in the classroom.

What difference have NCLB requirements made in hiring teachers in Philadelphia?

A year ago, approximately half of all newly hired teachers in Philadelphia were "emergency certified" or "apprentice teachers" not meeting the minimal requirements for designation as a "highly qualified" teacher. While Philadelphia has succeeded in reducing the numbers of new teachers on "emergency certificates" to approximately 30 percent, NCLB requires that percentage to be zero by 2006.

New Philadelphia teachers who are "highly qualified" came through several routes.

Literacy Intern Teacher Program: The District hired many graduates of this two-year alternate route program to "grow teachers" for Philadelphia. The program has placed emergency-certified teachers in primary grade classes in Philadelphia since l999, where they co-teach with a veteran teacher, receive mentoring and training, and enroll in a formal certification program at a local college. Although Literacy Intern Teachers received their training in primary grades, many graduates of the program have been hired to teach upper elementary or middle grades this fall.

Teach for America: This year, for the first time, the District contracted with Teach for America (TFA), a highly selective national teaching program for recent college graduates, to hire a over a hundred teachers for Philadelphia classrooms. TFA participants, who sign on for a two-year commitment, participate in intensive five-week summer training before coming to the District’s two-week summer program. Most teachers hired through TFA are on Intern certificates and have enrolled in teacher certification programs run by the University of Pennsylvania and St. Joseph’s University. Most TFA participants are teaching in middle grades, and many are teachers of Special Education.

Troops to Teachers: The District also partnered with this federally funded, alternate route to teaching for retired military personnel. The District hired just a handful of new teachers through this program, all of whom have enrolled in local certification programs. Participants mainly teach in the areas of middle or secondary math and science.

Transition to Teaching: Through this one-year certification program for math and science teachers at Drexel University, the District hired a number of new teachers, many of whom are coming to teaching from other careers. Teachers in the program commit to teach for three years in Philadelphia middle or high schools.

Accelerated Certification for Teachers (ACT): Philadelphia also hired new teachers participating in this new statewide program developed in conjunction with the School District in which individuals earn full certification in 12 to18 months. ACT participants receive full tuition from the state to earn certification in high-need fields-math, sciences, ELL, and Special Education. The state awarded ACT funds to five Philadelphia-area colleges to certify teachers who are currently or will be District employees. Many of the teachers using ACT grants this year previously taught on emergency certificates in the District, but have now passed the Praxis tests and teach on Intern certificates.

Many other new teachers came to the District through traditional teacher certification programs, the overwhelming majorityof whom were graduates of Pennsylvania colleges.

It remains to be seen which routes to teaching will prove best for placing and retaining "highly qualified" new teachers in the District in order to meet federal requirements.

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