What do you think about when you read or hear people talking about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirement that every child should have a highly qualified teacher (HQT)? Perhaps you envision one of your favorite teachers from school: someone who was warm and caring, knew their content area, provided engaging instruction of that content, and probably had been teaching for several years. If you are a parent, you might picture a HQT as someone who has a teaching license, has graduated from an education program, and who has training in both teaching and content. In fact, these are the basic tenets in the section of NCLB on HQTs.
You probably do not imagine that a teacher considered to be HQT has only had six weeks of training in how to teach, has no experience, and is not yet licensed. Nor do you imagine that the person is still in his or her teaching program. You also probably do not imagine that the person is only committing to teach for two years. Yet, Congress decided that this is adequate for an HQT designation in 2010. It was supposed to be a temporary fix while NCLB (also called the Elementary and Secondary Act) was being reauthorized. Since that hasn’t happened, people who have no teaching license or experience and very little training (typically participants in Teach for America, as students in traditional teacher preparation programs do not qualify) will continue to receive an HQT designation through at least 2015-2016. This, in fact, puts non-qualified teachers (forget “highly,” they are not even qualified) into the classrooms with the neediest kids and hides the fact that this is going on. Legally.
To understand how HQT has become so politicized and far removed from any classroom or child, we must begin with an eye toward the demographics of the teaching workforce. When NCLB was authorized, teachers in high-need and high-poverty schools were more likely to have lower qualifications for teaching (indicators include licensure, experience, and training). Students in wealthier schools typically have experienced teachers with licenses who are teaching in the subject area of their study. Incidentally, these trends have not changed much as of this writing. NCLB intended to remedy the situation and attempted to move higher quality teachers into the neediest classrooms, or at the very least, to balance out the distribution of highly qualified teachers among all students. Which, has not happened (also here) because Congress moved the bar so low for HQTs that even a zombie could be designated one.
So now, Congress has a chance to rectify this situation in the reauthorization process. However, they are not discussing the issue at much length. The House of Representatives voted on HR5 in July 2013 completely eliminates the HQT provisions of NCLB. The Senate is “still” discussing their bill, Strengthening America’s Schools Act (S. 1094), and that act provides HQT status to individuals still enrolled in a preparation program.
Since Congress is stalled (who’s surprised by this, seriously?), Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education have decided to come up with their own plan, Excellent Educators for All. Unfortunately, there are not many details yet on whether “excellent educators” includes people still in teacher preparation programs (such as Teach for America) or whether it includes actual highly-qualified teachers.
What can you do? Everything! As a constituent, you have more power than you think you do. Contact your representatives – frequently – and tell them what you would like to see in the law. Meet with them. Become an activist to raise the bar on what teacher makes a teacher “highly qualified.”