LA school district hiring underqualified teachers

By Cadonna M. Peyton The Associated Press
Monday October 02, 2000

LOS ANGELES — Three years ago, Xochitl Rodriguez left her human resources job and decided she wanted to teach. Without classroom experience or teaching courses, Rodriguez was hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District and was placed in charge of 20 kindergartners. 

As she walked into the aging Parthenia Elementary School, she admits she was scared by the “thought of being responsible for so many kids.” To cope, she began the long process of taking teaching courses at night and occasional workshops and classes to get help. 

Rodriguez’s situation was not unusual for the nation’s second-largest school district. Educators and researchers say the lack of qualified teachers for its 711,000 students is one of the district’s most pressing problems, particularly for poor and minority students. 

It is a problem also shared by New York, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and other large U.S. cities, said Michael Pons, spokesman for the National Education Association. 

Of Los Angeles’ 35,100 teachers, nearly one-fourth are working without having completed the required coursework or in-class experience needed to obtain a permit. And, district officials say, most of these teachers are going to low-income communities. 

“The very children who need a fully qualified, effective teacher the most are the least likely to get one,” said Margaret Gaston, co-director of the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning. 

For its part, the district says little can be done. The district checks candidates’ education backgrounds, references and gives initial interviews. It is then up to the candidate to choose the school, and typically, the most qualified teachers have gone to the least troubled schools. 

“We cannot do a forced transfer of a teacher,” said Superintendent Roy Romer. “It’s one we cannot order, it’s something we have to encourage with incentives.” 

The statewide issue prompted legislation in July and September. It offers incentives for people to go into – or return to – teaching in poor-performing schools. It includes providing block grants to school districts to pay for incentives, including signing bonuses, pay raises and housing subsidies, to attract credentialed teachers to work in the schools. 

Romer also hopes to improve conditions with better recruitment efforts. 

But the problem is still upsetting for parents and teachers, who believe it will only be exacerbated in coming years. In the Los Angeles district, more teachers are going to be needed for enrollment growth that is averaging 10,000 students a year. 

In the 1998-1999 school year, 75 percent of the district’s new hires were not credentialed. This year, 57 percent of the city’s new teachers did not have credentials, which require education courses, an exam and experience as a student teacher. 

An emergency permit requires a college degree and a basic skills test. Romer said city schools could not function without them. 

“We wouldn’t have classroom staff if we didn’t have this (system),” he said. “We can’t get along without it. An emergency credential doesn’t mean a bad teacher, it just means inexperienced.” 

John Perez, a Los Angeles high school teacher, said that is exactly the problem. 

“The emergency permit system is terrible,” said Perez, a vice president for the teachers’ union. 

“They don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t have the background in education, in child development,” Perez said. “It took me five years to learn how to teach, and it took me another five years to perfect what I learned in the first five