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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/23/2010

Congress approves weird definition of 'highly qualified’ teachers

By Valerie Strauss

Corrections: An earlier version of this incorrectly said an appellate court ruled a federal regulation on teachers "unconstitutional." Rather, it said the regulation was illegal because it did not fully meet a credential standard set in No Child Left Behind. Also the continuing resolution passed by Congress was not nearly 2,000 pages, as earlier stated.

So they’ve gone ahead and done it. U.S. legislators passed legislation that includes people in teacher training programs as "highly qualified” teachers.

Congress approved a “continuing resolution” that will fund the government until March.

It contained a provision to cover a $5.7 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program, which provides money for low- and moderate-income students to pay for college tuition.

In a seemingly contradictory move, Congress also wrote into law a 2002 federal regulation that allows teachers still in training programs to be considered “highly qualified” under No Child Left Behind.

So Congress wants students who qualify for Pell grants to go to college, but it apparently doesn’t mind calling non-certified teachers who are still being trained "highly qualified." And because of this designation, school districts aren’t required to tell parents just how little training their child’s teacher has had.

In September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the “highly qualified” regulation illegal because it did not fully meet a credential standard set in No Child Left Behind. But its supporters moved quickly to get Congress to not only save it.

Congress did, giving a gift to alternative teacher training programs such as Teach for America, which trains participants for five weeks before sending them into high-poverty schools.

Opponents of this definition of “highly qualified” note that these non-certified teachers are concentrated in high-poverty schools, serving children who actually need the best teachers with the experience to know how to handle their needs.

The office of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is chairman of the Senate’s education committee, sent me an explanation of why he supported the move. It said:

“There is broad, bipartisan agreement among members of Congress and the Obama administration that it is the intent of Congress for alternative-route teachers to be considered highly qualified, consistent with the regulation that has been in place for several years. Chairman Harkin strongly believes that teacher quality is essential to student success, and intends to address this issue as part of a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization. While that process is underway, the 9th Circuit’s decision – which reverses a previous court ruling in favor of the regulation – could cause significant disruptions in schools across the country and have a negative impact on students. Maintaining current practice is a temporary solution, and underscores the need to act quickly and reauthorize ESEA early in the next Congress.”

But there are holes in that argument.

Here’s a response from the plaintiffs’ attorney in the Ninth Circuit case, John Affeldt, managing attorney at the non-profit civil rights law firm, Public Advocates in San Francisco:

“Senator Harkin’s statement fails to acknowledge that what the courts have called an illegal definition of a "highly qualified" teacher has never been part of the law, and was rejected by Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller early on.

"To write what was an illegally expansive regulation into law will be a major change from the past. To permit a teacher who may have only just enrolled in preparation to be called "highly qualified" before they have met any training standards defies common sense. To visit those under-prepared teachers disproportionately on low-income students and students of color-and on special education students who are among those most often taught by under-prepared teachers--and then hide that fact from parents and the public--flies in the face of the equity, transparency and accountability that NCLB and our leaders apparently stand for.

"The fear of 'significant disruptions' in the teaching force has no basis, as the court case is currently being appealed and no classrooms will be affected during this school year.

"Furthermore, where there are needs, schools will continue to hire less-than-highly-qualified teachers, as is the case in several hundred thousand classrooms today. NCLB permits such teachers to continue to be employed as long as they fill shortage areas, are publicly disclosed and equitably distributed.

"If this were just about enacting a "temporary solution" to avoid short-term disruptions, the language would not seek to modify the highly qualified teacher definition for the next 2½ years. Instead, it has now become more important to maintain the status quo of using poor and minority schools as the training grounds for interns than enforcing teacher equity as NCLB called for and as parents are demanding. In fact, the real disruption is to the democratic process.

"Significantly modifying the standard of teacher quality owed every child in the nation is not something that should happen at the close of session, in the dead of night, behind closed doors in an appropriations bill, but where it is supposed to-in the light of day during the ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorization."

You can read a fuller piece by Affeldt on Huffington Post.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 23, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Congress, No Child Left Behind, Teachers  | Tags:  congress, continuing resolution, highly qualified teachers, teachers  
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Next: Test scores can't prove whether teacher experience matters


This issue affected me when I was in my teacher certification program. Since I was "highly qualified", I couldn't be reimbursed for my outlays for the program, which wound up to be about $8000 over 2 years. Teachers who were already teaching and who were not deemed "highly qualified", were reimbursed for their outlays to get qualified. Having a little skin in the game is good, but when you make are making a financial sacrifice to teach it was a tremendous bite at $45,000 a year to cover the costs. I already have a Master's Degree. How many years do I have to stay in school and shell out? Why does higher education hold the highest ground in the economy nowadays (they raise tuition every year despite a 4-year downturn) and force everyone into debt to get a chance to get a decent job?

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | December 23, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

The ugly truth of urban schools is the difficulty in staffing them with allegedly 'qualified,' 'experienced,' teachers. Teachers with tenure/experience do not choose to work in the 'hood, and until we face that fact we'll never solve this problem. Teacher-union contracts allow tenured teachers to have first priority in teaching assignments, and many of these teachers, as is their choice, choose not to teach in urban areas. Even charter schools that have more freedom in hiring teachers suffer from finding teachers who want to teach urban children.
I could write a thesis on the reasons behind this, but this is not the place; the issue exists, we don't confront it, and until we do the problem of quality teachers where they're needed most will persist.

Posted by: pdexiii | December 23, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Watch out Valerie.
Teach For America will be in DC Feb 11-13 to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
Ms. Kopp, who gets $279,525 plus another $54,000, is bringing Justin Beiber along.

Posted by: edlharris | December 23, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Arne Duncan got this passed to pave the way for massive teacher firings under RTTT. He hopes to see lots of teachers fired, and this will allow these teachers to be replaced.

This is immoral. Obama needs to be voted out. Also Tom Harkin.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 23, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Look, everyone is getting really complicated about this. I've been teaching for 15 years. The bottom line is that more experience DOES equal a higher level of insight and teaching quality. Yes, yes you are going to have weaker teachers than others, just like you have weaker professionals compared to others in all areas of work. Statements have been made that if only the bottom 5% of teachers were removed, then somehow that would eliminate the dropout problem, or "fix" our economic competitiveness (research? I think not.). That's just BS. I can argue that if we just got rid of the top 1% of abusive corporate CEO's, then perhaps the employment rate would skyrocket, and we wouldn't be in this mess to begin with. But of course, those in power don't want to face that truth; they would rather blame it on teachers. The simple fact is that over 25% of our children are in poverty, and the majority of the low scoring students on the NAEP and international studies are those children. And the majority of the dropouts are those same types of students. The real answer to helping these children, as Dr. Stephen Krashen has written: access to books, having qualified school librarians, and food security. The relationships teachers make with their kids often helps with the actual instruction, and the most experienced teachers know how to do this. Suggesting that a six week course at Teach for America is going to produce great teachers is nonsense, and it only underscores this fact: private industry will do whatever it can to open up the education marketplace for profit. Less experienced teachers=lower salaries= lower benefits to cover= higher profit margin. Over the lat ten years, semi private charter schools have increased from 1,000 to 10,000, based often on the new market tax credits available for hedge fund managers that invest in areas of high poverty. This is REALLY about turning public moneys into private capital. And any way these very powerful folks, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, or the Walton Family, can turn the public's attention away from their real agenda by using false premises, is good for their bottom line. They scream injustice when they are the producers of that injustice.

The classroom is in an of itself a lab of experimentation. The more years one has behind oneself in the class, the better one becomes as an expert in teaching, not the other way around. Look at ANY profession, and this is true. Teachers are being scape goated for the purposes of destroying a public good for corporate greed.

Posted by: jlucido | December 24, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

As a brand new teacher in 1970, I was put in the projects to teach. I was ill prepared and certainly would have performed better had I had experience. This would probably have been true in any teaching situation.
I learned more about teaching and learning in this environment--but the students I taught in that first year were victims of my inexperience. It was very serious on the job training. I believe that I became a better teacher every year that I taught.
The one quality that I did have that first year was that I cared. I hope the students benefited from this. With all the talk of testing students and what makes a good teacher, the most important trait, I think, is that the teacher cares about the students and what they learn. The most intelligent and best trained teachers will probably be ineffective if they do not care about the students. (Please note that I did not say they must care about the test results.) Certainly, testing is a part of teaching, but it is far from the most important part. There are all sorts of ways to evaluate students and there must be all sorts of ways to evaluate teachers.

From conversations with friends and acquaintances who know young people who have joined Teach for America, the stories that I hear are not positive. These enthusiastic young people feel they have been thrown unprepared into this environment.

When I was put into the projects, I had a degree in Elementary Education, but, I, too, was unprepared. Coming from a middle class background, nothing prepares you for the poverty and lack of motivation from families who place little value on schools. All parents love their children and want good things for them. The problem is that some people do not realize how important education is and how great a change it can bring in their children's lives. They don't realize how important it is for their children to get to school every day.

To sum up a rambling note: I know that experience makes a better teacher-but enthusiasm counts, too. Some teachers who have taught for years lose interest and need to quit. I also believe that there are rare people who are natural teachers with little training. A good administrator knows when he has one of those. He should also know when an experienced teacher is getting "burned out" and help that teacher regain enthusiasm.

Posted by: mmkm | December 28, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

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