IDEA’s Definition of “Highly Qualified”

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A special educator works with a student.
Updated October 2010

Special education teachers must now be highly qualified, says the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, which has modeled its new HQT requirements on those found in its sister general education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

To be considered a highly qualified special education teacher depends on what type of special educator a person is. Different meanings apply depending on whether the teacher is a “highly qualified” special education teacher…

These are the categories into which IDEA organizes its HQT requirements. The discussion below will first talk about HQT for special educators in general and then delve more fully into each of the categories.

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Before We Dive In…

IDEA’s provisions refer to “any public school special education teacher teaching in a public elementary school or public secondary school in the State” [§300.18(b)].  The emphasis here is on “public elementary school” and “public secondary school” in a State.

Highly Qualified Special Education Teachers in General

IDEA defines highly qualified special education teachers in general at §300.18(b)(1). You may find the definition a bit hard to untangle, because so much of teacher qualification is determined by individual State policy regarding certification or licensure. When it’s boiled down to its core and intent, §300.18(b)(1) states that, to be considered highly qualified, a special educator in general must meet the following requirements:

  • Full State certification or licensure as a special education teacher;
  • No waiving of the above on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis; and
  • Minimum of Bachelor’s degree.

Much can be said about these elements, including how teachers obtain full State certification, what alternate routes to certification exist, reciprocity between States, and what it means to have a provisional status as a teacher. If these elements interest you, you may wish to pursue those threads in our separate article More on Highly Qualified Special Educators…in General.

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Highly Qualified Special Education Teachers…Teaching Core Academic Subjects

To be considered highly qualified, special educators teaching core academic subjects must:

  • meet the requirements for special educators in general, and
  • demonstrate subject-matter competency in each subject taught.

What’s considered a core academic subject? IDEA defines that term at §300.10 to include these subjects:

  • English
  • Reading or language arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Foreign languages
  • Civics and government
  • Economics
  • Arts
  • History
  • Geography

How does a teacher demonstrate subject-matter competency? That’s an excellent question! As with most things HQT, the answer depends on a number of factors, including:

  • whether the teacher is engaged at the elementary, middle, or secondary school level;
  • whether the teacher is new to the profession or a “veteran;”
  • what the State requires (e.g., that the teacher must pass a rigorous State academic test in each core subject area taught); and
  • what criteria the State has established for its HOUSSE (High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation), which is basically an option by which veteran (and some new) teachers can demonstrate competency in subjects taught.

Thus, how subject-matter competency is demonstrated is not easily pinpointed. It will vary from State to State and by elementary, middle, and secondary school focus, among other things. The Department encourages States to examine, for each core academic subject, the degree of rigor and technicality of the subject matter that a teacher needs to know in relation to the State’s content standards and academic achievement standards. Teachers, the Department recommends, should contact their State Department of Education for more information about meeting the highly qualified teacher definition in the subjects they teach. [Footnote 1]

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Core Academic Subjects and Access to the General Education Curriculum

The 1997 Amendments to IDEA (IDEA ’97) strongly emphasized access to the general education curriculum for children with disabilities. In borrowing heavily from NCLB’s definitions of core academic subjects, highly qualified, and other elements (e.g., scientifically based research), the 2004 Amendments to IDEA have build upon, and added to, that emphasis. This is especially evident in IDEA’s description of the IEP and the requirements that:

  • each child’s IEP include annual goals to enable the child to be involved in and make  progress in the general education curriculum, and
  • a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services to enable the child to be involved and make progress in the general education curriculum (71 Fed. Reg. at 56552).

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Special Educators Teaching to Alternate Achievement Standards

Alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards are intended for children with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Connecting the dots, this means that we’re talking about the special educators who teach the children with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The relevant HQT provisions for these teachers are found within IDEA at §300.18(c) and are cited below.

(c) Requirements for special education teachers teaching to alternate achievement standards. When used with respect to a special education teacher who teaches core academic subjects exclusively to children who are assessed against alternate achievement standards established under 34 CFR 200.1(d), highly qualified means the teacher, whether new or not new to the profession, may either—

(1) Meet the applicable requirements of section 9101 of the ESEA and 34 CFR 200.56 for any elementary, middle, or secondary school teacher who is new or not new to the profession; or

(2) Meet the requirements of paragraph (B) or (C) of section 9101(23) of the ESEA as applied to an elementary school teacher, or, in the case of instruction above the elementary level, meet the requirements of paragraph (B) or (C) of section 9101(23) of the ESEA as applied to an elementary school teacher and have subject matter knowledge appropriate to the level of instruction being provided and needed to effectively teach to those standards, as determined by the State.

You’re thinking, huh? We understand that, for sure! Let’s take this one slowly.

Again, we have a case of multiple references to other provisions of law within NCLB and IDEA, which may make it difficult to understand at a glance what qualifications are actually required for the teachers in question to be highly qualified. Luckily, what’s being referenced, in large part, is NCLB’s definition of highly qualified teachers. The variety of factors impacting HQT (e.g., whether a teacher is working at the elementary, middle, or secondary school level; whether the teacher is new to the profession or not; and State-determined criteria for demonstrating subject-matter knowledge or competency), as discussed above, are applicable here as well. In addition to those factors, then, IDEA’s HQT requirements for special education teachers who teach core academic subjects to children with the most severe cognitive disabilities mean that such teachers must either demonstrate:

  • subject-matter competency in each academic subject taught as under NCLB; or
  • subject matter knowledge appropriate to the level of instruction being provided and needed to effectively teach to those standards.

We’ve already talked generally about what’s involved in demonstrating subject-matter competency. But what’s the difference between subject-matter competency and subject-matter knowledge?  Two excerpts from the Analysis of Comments and Changes can help illuminate the dimensions of these HQT requirements. The first comment relates to how alternate achievement standards differ from grade-level achievement standards and how HQT requirements, by extension, differ as well.

An alternate achievement standard sets an expectation of performance that differs in complexity from a grade-level achievement standard. Section 602(10)(C)(ii) of the Act, therefore, allows special education teachers teaching exclusively children who are assessed against alternate achievement standards to meet the highly qualified teacher standards that apply to elementary school teachers. In the case of instruction above the elementary level, the teacher must have subject matter knowledge appropriate to the level of instruction being provided, as determined by the State, in order to effectively teach to those standards. (71 Fed. Reg. at 46558)

But what does it mean to have subject-matter knowledge “appropriate to the level of instruction being provided?” The Department also discussed this and provided an example as well:

The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that teachers exclusively teaching children who are assessed based on alternate academic achievement standards above the elementary level have sufficient subject matter knowledge to effectively instruct in each of the core academic subjects being taught, at the level of difficulty being taught. For example, if a high school student (determined by the IEP Team to be assessed against alternate achievement standards) has knowledge and skills in math at the 7th grade level, but in all other areas functions at the elementary level, the teacher would need to have knowledge in 7th grade math in order to effectively teach the student to meet the 7th grade math standards. (71 Fed. Reg. at 46558-9)

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Special Educators Teaching…Multiple Subjects

When IDEA talks about special educators who teach multiple subjects, it means special education teachers  who teach two or more core academic subjects exclusively to children with disabilities. HQT requirements for this group are divided by IDEA into two:

  • requirements for those who aren’t new to the profession,
  • and requirements for those who are new.

These provisions appear at §300.18(d) and depend heavily on standards established within NCLB. Basically, to meet the applicable requirements, all special educators teaching multiple subjects at the elementary school level must:

  • Have at least a Bachelor’s degree.
  • Pass a rigorous State test that demonstrates their subject knowledge and teaching skills in reading/language arts, writing, mathematics, and other areas of the basic elementary school curriculum.

All special educators teaching multiple subjects at the middle or secondary school level must:

  • Have at least a Bachelor’s degree.
  • Comply with HQT requirements as specified for whichever of the two options describes them—are they new to the profession and not new? The requirements for teachers new to the profession and those who are not new are strikingly similar, as you can see below. The only difference is that teachers not new to the profession have one more option for meeting highly qualified requirements—HOUSSE.

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What’s HOUSSE? A Brief Explanation

HOUSSE stands for “high objective uniform State standard of evaluation.” It’s basically a mechanism that allows some teachers—especially those who are not new to the profession—to demonstrate their subject-matter competency via the criteria a State may establish. This may include meeting HQT requirements through a combination of teaching experience, professional development, and subject-matter knowledge gained through working the field. In many States, “[a] teacher may choose this route instead of demonstrating competency through examination, college major, college major equivalency, graduate degree, or advanced certification in the core content area taught.”[Footnote 2]

Who is Considered a New Teacher?

An inescapable question comes with these provisions and their reference to whether a special educator is new to the profession or not new: What’s considered “new?”

IDEA does not define this term. “States have the authority to define which teachers are new and not new to the profession,” the Department writes in the Analysis of Comments and Changes. “However, those definitions must be reasonable.” (71 Fed. Reg. at 56560) And as stated in its non-regulatory guidance on improving teacher quality:

[T]he Department strongly believes that a teacher with less than one year of teaching experience is “new” to the profession (see Question A–6). (The guidance is available at http://www.ed.gov/programs/teacherqual/guidance.doc). This guidance is applicable to determinations of when a person is new or not new to the profession under …§300.18(c) and (d)(2). (Id.)

Additionally, as specified at §300.18(d)(3), a new special educator of multiple subjects who is already highly qualified in mathematics, language arts, or science has two years after the date of employment to demonstrate subject-matter competency in the other core academic subjects he or she teaches. This teacher may do so in the same manner as is required under NCLB’s §200.56, which may include using the mechanism established in a State’s single HOUSSE covering more than two subjects.

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Footnotes

[Footnote 1] U.S. Department of Education. (2004, March). Fact sheet: New No Child Left Behind flexibility: Highly qualified teachers. Washington, DC: Author. Available online at: http://www.ed.gov/nclb/methods/teachers/hqtflexibility.pdf

See also: U.S. Department of Education (n.d.). No Child Left Behind: A toolkit for teachers. Retrieved May 2, 2007 at http://www.ed.gov/teachers/nclbguide/toolkit_pg10.html

[Footnote 2] National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education for Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent or At Risk. (n.d.). What is HOUSSE? Retrieved May 4, 2007, at www.neglected-delinquent.org/nd/resources/legislate/HQT/HOUSSE.asp

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