Highly Qualified Teachers

The term highly qualified teacher comes from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (2002). As of the end of the 2006–2007 academic year, all public school teachers who provide direct instruction to students in core academic subjects must be “highly qualified.” The requirements apply differently to teachers at charter and private schools.

What the Law Requires

To be considered highly qualified under the NCLB, public school teachers who directly teach students in core subjects must meet the following requirements: hold at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution of higher education, have full state teaching certification through either a traditional or alternative route, and demonstrate subject matter competence in each of the academic subjects taught. Under NCLB, charter school teachers do not have to meet the full state certification requirement. NCLB does not apply to private schools.

The core academic subjects under the NCLB are English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography. If public school teachers do not teach one of these core academic subjects, the requirements do not apply. Core academic subjects do not include physical education, computer science, and vocational education.

In addition, the “highly qualified” requirements generally do not apply to public school special education teachers, as they generally provide consultations to teachers and additional supports to students and do not directly instruct students as their primary teachers in a core academic subject. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement law (2004), special education teachers must hold at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution of higher education and state certification in special education. If public school special education teachers teach one or more core subjects directly to students, they must meet the highly qualified teacher requirements for each core subject taught.

How to demonstrate subject matter competence differs depending on whether teachers are new or veterans and whether they teach at the elementary or middle and high school levels. Newly hired teachers at the elementary level must pass state tests covering subject matter knowledge and teaching skills in reading, writing, mathematics, and other areas of a core elementary school curriculum. Newly hired teachers at the middle and high school levels must do one of the following: pass a state test in the academic subject matter area; complete an academic major, course work equivalent to a major, or a graduate degree in the academic subject area; or have advanced certification, like National Board Certification, in the academic subject area.

Veteran teachers must demonstrate subject matter competence by either meeting the new teacher requirements or the state’s Highly Objective Uniform State Standards of Evaluation (HOUSSE) plan. Under NCLB, HOUSSE plans are an alternative method to new teacher requirements for demonstrating subject area competence through an evaluation of teachers’ performances and professional development during their careers. NCLB requires state HOUSSE plan evaluations to meet seven criteria:

  1. Be set to determine both grade-appropriate academic subject matter knowledge and teaching skills 
  2. Be aligned with student academic achievement standards and developed in consultation with core curriculum content specialists, teachers, and principals 
  3. Provide objective information about the teacher’s level of core content knowledge in the academic subject matter areas taught 
  4. Be applied uniformly to all teachers in the same grade and academic subject matter area 
  5. Take into consideration, but not as the primary evidence, the teacher’s years of experience teaching the academic subject 
  6. Be made available to public, upon request 
  7. Be designed to perhaps involve multiple, objective measures of teacher competency 

Examples of evidence used by states in their HOUSSE plans include administrator observations, examination of the teacher’s curriculum and lesson plans, years of teaching experience, being a peer mentor, teaching university courses, and receiving a teaching award.

Implementation Issues

Many school systems with shortages of people meeting the highly qualified teacher standards prior to the passage of NCLB have still not been able to hire such individuals for every classroom. This has been especially true in science classrooms across the country, in which the general shortage of teachers means they often teach additional classes outside their field of study; in rural districts, in which low student enrollments mean that teachers teach subjects in multiple disciplines; and in poor, urban districts, in which low salaries and stressful working conditions make it difficult to attract teachers.

For the first two problems, the Department of Education has eased the requirements. The department allows states to permit science teachers to demonstrate that they are highly qualified in the “broad field” of science, rather than in each subject they teach. For teachers in specially designated rural districts, the department allows them 3 additional years to meet the requirements, as long as they are already highly qualified in at least one subject area.

The Department of Education has not provided additional flexibility related to the teacher requirements for urban schools. To overcome ongoing teacher shortages, some urban districts are recruiting interns through alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, wherein individuals teach K–12 classes while taking pedagogy courses. As a result, these districts have teachers who meet the requirements but lack prior teaching experience and have little training in teaching methods. These outcomes appear to violate the stated purpose of the highly qualified teacher requirement: that is, to provide students with the best teachers possible, especially poor and minority students, because teachers are the key to student academic achievement.

Eric M. Haas

See also Charter Schools; No Child Left Behind Act; Nonpublic Schools; Rural Education

Further Readings

  • Berry, B., Hoke, M., & Hirsch, E. (2004). The search for highly qualified teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, 85, 684–689. 
  • Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (Eds.). (2007). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Legal Citations

  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301 et seq. 
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.