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Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 06/12/2012

Will Congress compound its error on ‘highly qualified’ teachers?

Back in late 2010, Congress approved legislation that defined “highly qualified teachers” as including students still in teacher training programs. Now, instead of admitting that the definition doesn’t make much sense, Congress is on the road to passing new legislation to keep that definition on the books (even though a federal appellate court has ruled that it violates the No Child Left Behind law).

This week, and possibly as early as today, a Senate subcommittee is taking up an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — known in its current form as No Child Left Behind — that deals with this issue.

Under NCLB, all children are supposed to have highly qualified teachers. School districts are supposed to let parents know which teachers are not highly qualified, and they are supposed to be equitably distributed in schools. But they aren’t.

In fact, teachers still in training programs are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving low-income students and students of color, the very children who need the very best the teaching profession has to offer. And the inequitable distribution of these teachers has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities.

There is a long history to how this “highly qualified” definition evolved, but salient points include:

1) The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has twice — including last month — ruled that it violated NCLB because it did not fully meet a credential standard set in that law.

2) The definition is supported by Teach for America and similar organizations which train teachers in far less time than traditional programs.

Teach for America, which has lobbied Congress on the issue, gives young college graduates five weeks of summer training before sending them into low-performing schools. TFA corps members are supposed to commit to staying in their initial placement for two years — and that, apparently, is good enough for the U.S. Education Department, which has awarded TFA millions of dollars in recent years.

(Incidentally, the two-year TFA commitment is shorter than that required by federal Teacher Quality Partnership grants, which provide money for the preparation of teachers in higher education for high-need schools and fields. These folks must promise to serve at least three years. And there’s the federal TEACH grants, which are given to students in traditional preparation programs and which require them to be in a high-need classroom and field for at least four years.)

A coalition of non-profit organizations has written a letter (see text below) to subcommittee chair, Sen. Tom Harkin, urging him to reject any definition of highly qualified that includes teachers still in training. Here’s the letter:

June 11, 2012

The Honorable Tom Harkin

Chairman

Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies

Committee on Appropriations

United States Senate

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chairman Harkin:

We are writing on behalf of the Education Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. The Task Force objects to the extension of an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) related to the definition of highly qualified teachers in the FY 2013 Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) appropriations bill to be considered this week.

The provision we oppose was included in the FY 2012 continuing resolution (CR) and amends the ESEA to allow teachers in the midst of their preparation to be called “highly qualified” teachers despite that fact that they are not fully prepared to be teachers . The regulation has been determined to be in violation of the statute by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and in May 2012 the Court reaffirmed its ruling. This inequitable distribution of unqualified teachers has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities.

The ongoing lowering of standards related to highly qualified teachers will negatively impact students with disabilities. Research shows that students with disabilities thrive when receiving instruction from fully certified special education teachers. An Institute for Education Sciences study of all Florida teachers (Feng & Sass, 2010) found that fully certified special education teachers generate superior student learning gains as compared to special education teachers who are not fully certified. The current amendment has opened the floodgates for more and more uncertified special education teachers to serve students with disabilities.

We also know that more than half of students with disabilities participate in general education classrooms for 80 percent or more of the school day. General education teachers need additional preparation in order to ensure that they are skilled in working with students with disabilities. A few weeks of training is not enough preparation for a teacher to be skilled in utilizing universal design for learning, differentiating instructional strategies, managing challenging behaviors, preventing the use of restraint and seclusion, and providing educational supports to a diverse classroom – especially in our most underserved, under resourced schools. As more students with disabilities participate in general education classrooms, it is critical that all teachers have increased preparation and skill. Being an effective teacher for a student with autism or intellectual disabilities or learning disabilities requires sophisticated skill and is not mastered in a five week program.

We join a coalition of over 85 national advocacy organizations in our opposition to the continuation of this policy set forth in the fiscal year 2012 CR. We urge you to reject the inclusion of any amendment lowering standards for teachers in the LHHS appropriations bill.

Thank you for considering our views.

Sincerely,

Katy Beh Neas, Easter Seals 202.347.3066 kneas@easterseals.com

Laura Kaloi, National Center for Learning Disabilities 703.476.4894 lkaloi@ncld.org

Cindy Smith, National Disability Rights Network 202-408-9514 cindy.smith@ndrn.org

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities is a coalition of nearly 100 national consumer, advocacy, provider and professional organizations headquartered in Washington, D.C. Since 1973, the CCD has advocated on behalf of people of all ages with physical and mental disabilities and their families. CCD has worked to achieve federal legislation and regulations that assure that the 54 million children and adults with disabilities are fully integrated into the mainstream of society. Approximately 50 national organizations participate in the CCD Education Task Force.

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