No Child Left Behind’s Highly Qualified Teachers provision deserves to die. I felt this way even before this week’s surprise ruling by the (oft-overturned) Ninth Circuit. The court invalidated a Bush Administration-era regulation that allowed Teach For America participants (and other alt cert teachers) to be considered “highly qualified” while they worked toward full state certification. This is a huge deal—and creates a serious crisis in Ninth Circuit states—for it automatically puts schools that hire TFA teachers “out of compliance” with Title I, and would require them to send letters home within a month telling parents that their kids are being taught by unqualified teachers.
A little background might be helpful. When Congress wrote NCLB, there was some debate about whether TFA types should be considered “highly qualified” under the law. (Republicans said yes; some union-friendly Democrats said no.) The Hill essentially punted by writing confusing—you might say contradictory—language:
The term “highly qualified”—when used with respect to any public elementary school or secondary school teacher teaching in a State, means that—(i) the teacher has obtained full State certification as a teacher (including certification obtained through alternative routes to certification) or passed the State teacher licensing examination, and holds a license to teach in such State, except that when used with respect to any teacher teaching in a public charter school, the term means that the teacher meets the requirements set forth in the State’s public charter school law; and (ii) the teacher has not had certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis…
So read that passage and ask yourself: did Congress intend for alt cert teachers to be considered “highly qualified,” or not? Detractors of alternative certification, including the folks who filed the case just decided by the Ninth Circuit, claim that the language clearly states that teachers must have already obtained “full State certification,” though they can attain that “through alternative routes to certification.” Most alternative routes grant full certification after two years in the classroom and the passage of numerous ed school courses. Under this interpretation, alt cert teachers couldn’t be highly qualified in their first or second years on the job. (In other words, during many TFA teachers’ entire tenure.)
But that’s a preposterous interpretation of Congressional intent. For one, in the very same statute, Congress authorized the Transition to Teaching program which supports alternate routes to the classroom. And second, the very same Congress awarded multiple earmarks to Teach For America, year in and year out. This surely wouldn’t be the first time that the federal government was working at cross purposes, but it seems very unlikely that Congress intended to make TFA essentially illegal.
So those of us in the Bush Administration published a common-sense regulation that basically said that if you were in a bona fide alt cert program and working toward full certification, you could be considered highly qualified. (TFA wasn’t necessarily thrilled with our decision; that meant that all of their teachers had to enroll in alt cert programs whether they wanted to or not.) And that was the regulation overturned the other day for, supposedly, contradicting the statute.
OK, enough with the legal brief. The important question is: Now what? Supporters of Teach For America and alt cert writ large could sit around and wait for this case to wind its way to the Supreme Court, and hope for the best. Or we could sit around and wait for Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind and fix the problem. But either of those approaches could leave us waiting for years.
A better approach is to urge Congress to kill the Highly Qualified Teachers provision—stat. Everybody knows it’s a meaningless designation. Nobody will defend its focus on paper credentials. The conversation has moved onto teacher “effectiveness” as measured by student learning and other meaningful indicators. Yet, in the real world of real schools, HQT is still the law of the land, wreaking havoc every day. It continues to make teachers jump through unnecessary hoops. It continues to tie the hands of charter schools that have to demonstrate that their teachers have requisite “subject matter knowledge”—to hell with the autonomy charters are supposed to receive. And now it’s causing material harm to Teach For America, one of the best things our education system has going for it.
When the education appropriations bill moves through Congress this fall, some simple language could be attached. Basically: “HQT, RIP.”