The federal provisions that define "highly qualified teachers" in the No Child Left Behind Act could soon be a thing of the past if U.S. House legislation is signed into law. The Student Success Act, drafted by Minnesota Republican John Kline, calls for removal of teacher hiring requirements at the federal level. Kline and other proponents of the Student Success Act, say the current outdated policies in place are actually hurting K-12 schools because things like credentials get in the way of hiring the best teachers. Individual states could still enforce stringent credentialing for teachers but the federal government would have no input. The term "highly qualified teachers" (HQT) would be removed from federal law.
Predictably, Democrats on the Education and the Workforce Committee that drafted the legislation hate it. Representative Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Texas, says the bill is a recipe for disaster when it comes to federal oversight and protection for disadvantaged students. He says:
"This legislation guts the core goal that all students should receive a quality education. It leaves children behind by taking resources from kids who need it most."
Also at issue is the removal of funding for professional development for teachers and lack of protection for collective bargaining action.
A different K-12 bill supported by mostly Democrats has already passed the Senate that maintains the HQT policy but hands over a little more control of hiring teachers to states. The Strengthening America's Schools Act would keep in place federal requirements that insist teacher evaluations, including student achievement, be used in personnel decisions.
Both bills allow states to use Title II funding to further develop teachers and administrators and for reduction in class size (though the House bill limits that to 10 percent of funds). Both bills also call for teacher evaluations to be used to determine equity in distribution.
At least on paper, the federal HQT provision looks good. HQTs must have state certification, at least a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution and demonstrate competency in the core academic subject area. That seems pretty standard to me. If a state license, college degree and expertise on a subject being taught are somehow keeping qualified teachers from the classroom, what requirements should there be instead?
Critics of the HQT federal mandate say that the requirement focuses too much on the upfront status of the teacher. While those three conditions are a starting point, the real measure of a teacher should lie in student outcomes. To help K-12 teachers reach their full potential in the classroom, provisions that allow for continued training and development need to be emphasized, not taken away. Further, since the strength of college-level education programs vary and the licensing exams are different between states, how can the federal government really mandate what constitutes a HQT?
Proponents of the HQT provision concede that states must do more than the basic requirements when it comes to hiring and cultivating teachers, but that without that federal mandate, students will suffer -- particularly minority and low-income children. The concern is that without the three HQT provisions, inexperienced and unqualified teachers will find their way into Title I schools. The promotion of equitable distribution of teachers in all classrooms -- particularly ones with at-risk students -- would be detrimentally impacted if federal HQT mandates are eliminated.
So what control should the federal government truly have over teacher qualifications? Should it be up to states to decide what their student bodies really need from teachers? To what end will disadvantaged students be harmed if either legislation is signed into law?