The last time Charlie Parker took a social studies class, he was a teenager with an Afro and Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Yet here he was, standing at the front of a classroom, trying to teach dozens of high schoolers subjects that never appealed to him when he learned them more than 30 years ago.
On his first day teaching U.S. history, world history and economics at McAlister High School in Los Angeles nearly four years ago, 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, Parker said, "I was doing homework, just like the kids."
These were not the troubles of a rookie teacher. Parker had taught for more than 20 years, including 11 at McAlister.
The problem for Parker, who taught social studies at McAlister for two years and now teaches at another Los Angeles high school, was that he should not have taught history to begin with.
Every year in California, public school administrators assign thousands of teachers to classes for which they lack the credentials or legal authorization to teach.
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. Or, in Parker's case, to teach social studies when they're credentialed for biology.
Nearly one 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. The average rate of improperly assigned teachers at these schools was 16 percent over the same period.
In the 2010-11 school year, more than 12,000 teachers and certificated personnel at more than 1,000 low-performing 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, a California Watch analysis found.
Research and interviews with state and local education officials suggest that staffing turnover and shortages, insufficient resources, 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. The extra scrutiny a product of Williams v. California, a landmark class-action lawsuit that in 2004 charged the state with ensuring all students had qualified, credentialed teachers also has helped.
Still, the rate of improperly assigned teachers at low-performing schools has hovered above a persistent 12 percent. (It's unclear how California ranks nationally; states have different standards and policies for employing teachers, making comparisons difficult.)
"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 and the attorney overseeing the implementation of the Williams settlement.
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.
Michael Hanson, superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District, said assigning teachers outside of what their credentials allow is sometimes the best solution to a Rubik's cube of teachers, students, courses and schedules.
In the last school year, for example, scheduling conflicts led to a high school algebra teacher instructing one period of geometry, a course the teacher's credential did not permit.
"I'm not going to find a geometry teacher who can work one period during the day," Hanson said. "Here's the only way I can get it done."
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.
It took the Oakland Unified School District five months 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."