Rural Trust Signs Letter On Highly Qualified Teachers

Last Updated: February 24, 2011

This article appeared in the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

The Rural Trust has joined more than 70 other organizations in a letter to President Obama and key Congressional leaders in both parties. The letter expresses concerns about a statutory change made by Congress to the Highly Qualified Teacher provisions of No Child Left Behind.

At issue is language inserted in H.R. 3082, the Continuing Resolution for government funding passed in December. The language codifies as law a definition that gives teachers who have no teaching experience and are participating in training in alternative route certification programs a “highly qualified teacher” designation. Alternate route programs enable people to become certified to teach without going through a typical college certification/degree program. There are many different alternate route programs operated by a number of organizations with different training regimens. Many people considered Highly Qualified under this definition are just beginning teacher training.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001, required all public school teachers to become "Highly Qualified" by earning a major in all subject areas they teach, passing a standardized test, and being fully certified in their states. Experienced teachers could sidestep some of these rules by completing a separate process. In addition, NCLB required districts to inform parents of ay student whose teacher had not completed all these steps that the teacher was not Highly Qualified. (These letters were sent for many certified, experienced, and exceptionally strong teachers.) The HQT provisions are the first nation-wide rules for teachers. States and districts that fail to comply can lose federal funding.

NCLB also includes a provision that requires states to ensure that low-income children and children of color are taught by Highly Qualified teachers at the same rate as other children. This provision is an attempt to address the long-standing and nation-wide reality that the most experienced and qualified teachers are concentrated in higher-income schools and classrooms while low-income students are much more likely to be taught by teachers with little or no experience or training. Unlike the HQT rules, however, this provision has no real enforcement mechanisms.  

Response to Lawsuit

The U.S. Department of Education typically issues "Guidance" on significant federal education laws to help schools and districts understand how to implement the law and meet requirements. NCLB Guidance included an entire section on HQT. That guidance allowed states to consider individuals participating in alternate route certification programs Highly Qualified. Most states followed this guidance and began, for the first time, to give fully certified status to alternate route participants who had not yet completed the certification program.

Guidance, however, does not carry the weight of law, and a group of low-income parents in California brought a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that their children's teachers in alternate certification programs were not Highly Qualified as defined by NCLB. At issue was whether the HQT Guidance actually met the requirements of the federal elementary and secondary education act (NCLB).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with the parents and ruled that teachers in alternate route training programs could not be considered Highly Qualified.

The ruling affected California as well as the eight other states in the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction. But federal court rulings carry influence beyond the borders of their circuits, and it was expected that the ruling would confuse HQT status in other states.

Partially in response to state-level confusion about the implications of the 9th Circuit ruling and partially in response to intense lobbying efforts from alternate route providers, Congress wrote language into the law to designate people enrolled in alternate route certification programs as Highly Qualified, nullifying the 9th Circuit ruling.

Distribution, the Real Issue

Although the vast majority of states were following the Department's Guidance and granting HQT status to alternate route trainees, the change in the law has the potential to make it more difficult to measure the distribution of fully-trained and experienced teachers. The probability that low-income students will be taught by novice teachers is likely increased.

More problematically, the change in the law does nothing to address the challenges that force high-poverty, low-wealth schools to depend on teachers who are not fully trained and are unlikely to remain in the school more than a year or two. Those challenges include lower pay, inadequate teaching resources, and poor working conditions. The change in the law does nothing to support and prepare teachers who are most likely to want to work in highly challenging teaching situations and most likely to be effective in them. And, it fails to remedy the punitive effects that other aspects of current federal educational policy have on teachers in high poverty schools.

The new HQT language may make it easier for alternate route programs to stay in business, and it may make it easier for high-poverty schools to find people to work in their classrooms. But it also makes it easier for states and policymakers to ignore the serious challenges facing communities where the most vulnerable children attend school. 

You can read the full text of the letter here

Read more from the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.