States Struggle to Define Highly Qualified Teachers


More than a year-and-a-half after No Child Left Behind became law, state education officials still see a big unchecked item on their To Do list: pin down the definition of a highly qualified teacher.

The clock is ticking. States have three years to get highly qualified teachers in all classrooms, but officials face a lengthy process that may include recruiting and retraining some teachers. But first, states have to figure out exactly what "highly qualified" means.

Only 10 states have hammered out definitions that comply with federal highly qualified teacher guidelines, according to data from the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization involving key leaders from all levels of the education system. However, at the start of the last school year and with murky definitions in hand, districts receiving Title I funds for low-income students were required to hire only highly qualified teachers for core subjects.

"It's a serious problem for local school districts," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, an education advocacy group. "If they don't know the rules ahead of time, they're just in the dark, and they'll go ahead and hire people."

No Child Left Behind stipulates that highly qualified teachers demonstrate subject competence but tells states to flesh out that term's meaning. Elementary school teachers must pass a test in their curriculum area, and middle and high school teachers must hold an academic major or graduate degree in the subject taught, take a comparable amount of coursework or pass a state test. The regulations apply to teachers in charge of core subjects, such as English, math, science, foreign languages, government and history.

"It's a very lofty and good goal, but we won't achieve it," Jennings said. "If states set a low [highly qualified teacher] standard, it can be done. If states set a medium-to-high proficiency, it can't."

State officials have until September to notify the U.S. Department of Education of their plan to get highly qualified teachers in all core classes by the 2005-2006 deadline, but they are not required to submit their "highly qualified" definitions to the department for approval. Their proposed definitions vary, with some states setting stringent requirements and others offering more leeway.

Here's a sampling of state activity:

  • Illinois requires veteran teachers to hold valid certificates and meet one of five options to show subject-area competence. As stipulated in federal guidelines, new teachers must pass a subject test, hold a major or other advanced degree, or have coursework equivalent to a major.
  • Kansas requires new teachers to achieve a minimum score on a content test to receive a state license. Veteran teachers can meet one of four options to be deemed highly qualified.
  • Idaho's State Board of Education extended the highly qualified requirement to all teachers, not just those in charge of core subjects. As a result, officials say about 2 percent of Idaho's teachers roughly 600 people won't make the cut.
  • California had to scrap its initial definition, which converted nearly all teachers, whether on waivers or emergency permits, to highly qualified status. Responding to an outcry from education groups, the California State Board of Education is in the process of sculpting new requirements.

The National Education Association (NEA), which represents 2.7 million educators, has criticized the focus of No Child Left Behind. Although the law stipulates that highly qualified teachers must be in all classrooms, it doesn't address how to get those teachers there, NEA spokeswoman Denise Cardinal said.

"Competitive wages, good benefits, a nice working environment the law doesn't address those things at all," Cardinal said. "If we're serious about getting highly qualified teachers in the classroom, we need to make it an attractive profession."

Attracting teachers highly qualified or not is difficult in rural schools, where one teacher often has to be in charge of multiple subjects, said Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, an advocate group for rural schools.

"In so many cases, rural schools depend on teachers to teach in their minor subject area, and they're not going to be able to do that under No Child Left Behind," Mooneyham said. "The number of teachers who want to go into a rural area is limited unless they have a particular attachment to the area."

Harry Gamble, public information officer for Alaska's Department of Education and Early Development, said his state was a case-in-point.

Conditions in Alaska make attracting teachers difficult, Gamble said. In Alaska's North Slope Borough School District, which is slightly larger than Minnesota, the 10 schools are not connected by roads. Twenty percent of Alaskan schools employ three or fewer teachers, Gamble said.

"You can imagine the impact a requirement of a content major would have on those schools where teachers teach a broad range of subjects and grade levels," he told

Regardless of what a highly qualified teacher is, most education officials agree that is important to get these teachers in all classrooms.

Roughly 30 percent of high school students during the 1999-2000 school year had English and math teachers without both subject majors and certification, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal organization that analyzes education-related data.

The disparities widen as income gaps increase a 2002 report from the Education Trust, an education advocacy group, stated that classes in high-poverty secondary schools are 77 percent more likely to be assigned an out-of-field teacher than classes in low-poverty schools.

"The research is clear that the quality of teaching has the biggest impact on student achievement," Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust, said. "If we want to raise student achievement and close gaps between groups of kids, the most important resource to focus on is qualified teachers."


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