Teachers-in-training deemed ‘highly qualified’ by Congress

Congress was busy the week before Christmas, capping off a legislative session that saw the most laws passed since the 1960s. In the final days of the lame-duck Congress, the Senate and House passed items ranging from the high-profile James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and new food-safety legislation to a “continuing resolution” that funds the government until March.

Buried in the continuing resolution, passed on Dec. 22, was language that explicitly extends the title of “highly qualified teacher” to those still in training.

The term was first introduced in legislation in No Child Left Behind. The 2001 Act required that parents be alerted if their child’s teacher didn’t have a college degree in the subject area taught, state certification or competence in basic skills (or the subject area). Teachers who didn’t hit these benchmarks – and who were consequently deemed not highly qualified – were supposed to be spread somewhat evenly throughout the school system.

But for the past nine years, individuals taking alternate paths to the classroom — through, for instance, Teach For America or The New Teacher Project — have counted as highly qualified teachers. In most cases, these teachers-in-training receive a few weeks of preparation over the summer and take graduate-level classes while teaching, ultimately earning certification after a year or two.

In September, a federal court ruled that these individuals can’t legally be considered highly qualified. But the continuing resolution directly contradicts that decision, and the court’s ruling has been appealed.

There’s an argument to be made that looking at the definition of highly qualified teachers is the wrong conversation to be having because it focuses on inputs, not outputs, unlike attempts around the country to define a “highly effective teacher.”

Yet many will also argue that, at least in some ways, inputs and outputs are linked – and that five weeks of training simply isn’t enough of an input to guarantee a quality output. Of course, it all depends on whom you ask. Teach For America points to research that indicates its members do as well or better than other first-year teachers and sometimes even veteran teachers. Other research has found that alternatively certified teachers are not as good as their traditionally trained peers.

Many bloggers, including at least one former TFA member and current teacher, have criticized Congress for this action. Yet the office of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate’s education committee, released a statement on Dec. 20 describing the decision as a “broad, bipartisan agreement,” adding that the court’s verdict “could cause significant disruptions in schools across the country and have a negative impact.”

Harkin’s office also said the issue will be considered as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) — known in its most recent incarnation as NCLB — next year.