More on Highly Qualified Special Educators…in General

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Updated October 2010 | Links updated, May 2013Picture of a special educator sitting at her desk.

IDEA defines highly qualified special education teachers in general at §300.18(b)(1). As we were saying in the lead-in article to the more detailed look offered here, 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) stipulates 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 above on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis; and
  • Minimum of Bachelor’s degree.

Use the links below to connect with the details of HQT for special educators.


What It Means to Obtain Full State Certification or Licensure

To be considered a highly qualified special education teacher (in general), an individual must be certified by the State in which he or she is teaching, although there are multiple ways in which a teacher might reach that goal. The regulation at §300.18(b)(1)(i) shows that there are “many roads to Rome,” including obtaining full State certification as a special education teacher through traditional preservice teacher preparation programs or through an alternative route to certification. Passing the State’s special education teacher licensing exam is also acceptable, as long as the individual obtains a license to teach in the State as a special educator.

These variable paths speak to the reality of teacher certification as a State responsibility. As the Department notes:

States are responsible for establishing certification and licensing standards for special education teachers. Each State uses its own standards and procedures to determine whether teachers who teach within that State meet its certification and licensing requirements…It is not the role of the Federal government to regulate teacher certification and licensure.  (71 Fed. Reg. at 46554)

So, while the regulation may seem a bit cumbersome in its phrasing, in fact it is so phrased to allow for the State role in determining what it means for a special educator to be considered “certified” or “licensed” in that State.

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Alternative Routes to Certification

Alternative routes to certification are exactly what they sound like: ways that teachers can meet certification and licensing requirements other than through the more traditional teacher preparation path through a State-approved university program. Terms such as alternative teacher certification and alternate routes to teacher certification are often used interchangeably with alternative routes to certification.” [1]

The National Center for Education Information states that what began as a way to ward off projected shortages of teachers has become a “major” player in the “production of highly qualified teachers.” [2]  NCEI also reports that:

  • Approximately 35,000 individuals are entering teaching through alternative teacher certification routes each year.
  • In 2005, 47 states, plus the District of Columbia, report 122 alternative routes to teacher certification being implemented by 619 providers of individual programs around the country.
  • Nearly half say they would not have become a teacher if the alternate route to certification had not been available.

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Alternative Routes and IDEA’s HQT Requirements

IDEA’s provisions clearly acknowledge the acceptability of an alternative route to certification for special education teachers in general, given the specific conditions listed at §300.18(b)(2). An abbreviated list of the features of an alternative route that IDEA mentions would look something like this:

  • high-quality professional development;
  • sustained, intensive, and classroom-focused professional development;
  • having a positive and lasting impact on classroom instruction;
  • intensive supervision;
  • structured guidance; and/or
  • regular ongoing support for teachers or a teacher mentoring program.

IDEA also describes the limitations to this approach to meeting the “highly qualified” standard. Specifically, individuals taking such an alternative route to certification:

  • may not continue to assume the functions of a teacher for more than three years, and
  • must demonstrate satisfactory progress toward full certification as prescribed by the State.

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Department’s Comments on Alternative Routes

Following the release of the draft Part B regulations, the Department received many public comments on alternative routes to certification. We’ve excerpted many of these below in bullet form, as they illuminate both IDEA’s requirements and the value of alternative routes in equipping public schools with highly qualified special education teachers.

[T]he Department believes that alternative route to certification programs provide an important option for individuals seeking to enter the teaching profession.

The requirements in §300.18(b)(2) were included in the regulations to provide consistency with the ESEA’s requirements regarding alternative route to certification programs.

To help ensure that individuals participating in alternative route to certification programs are well trained, there are certain requirements that must be met as well as restrictions on who can be considered to have obtained full State certification as a special education teacher while enrolled in an alternative route to certification program.

An individual participating in an alternative route to certification program must (1) hold at least a bachelor’s degree and have demonstrated subject-matter competency in the core academic subject(s) the individual will be teaching; (2) assume the functions of a teacher for not more than three years; and (3) demonstrate satisfactory progress toward full certification, as  prescribed by the State. The individual also must receive, before and while teaching, high-quality professional development that is sustained, intensive, and classroom-focused and have intensive supervision that consists of structured guidance and  regular ongoing support.

It was the Department’s intent to allow an individual who wants to become a special education teacher, but does not plan to teach a core academic subject, to enroll in an alternative route to certification program and be considered highly qualified, provided that the individual holds at  least a bachelor’s degree.

States are responsible for ensuring that the standards for alternative route to certification programs in §300.18(b)(2)(i) are met. It is, therefore, up to each State to determine whether to require specific qualifications for the teachers responsible for supervising teachers participating in an alternative route to certification program.

Excerpted from the Analysis of Comments and Changes (71 Fed. Reg. at 46557)

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Reciprocity Between States

Given that States define their own standards for teacher certification or licensure, the concern naturally arises that a teacher might be certified in one State but not in another. This can make it difficult for teachers who move from one State to another (are they certified in the new State?) and for the recruitment efforts of States facing chronic teacher shortage. The Department acknowledges that “[t]eacher qualifications and standards are consistent from State to State to the extent that States work together to establish consistent criteria and reciprocity agreements” (Id.).

And that begs the question: Are States working together?

Yes, indeed, they are. Find out more through these resources of additional information:

Certification Requirements in 50 States

Certification and Licensure State Policy Database

National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification
NASDTEC maintains information on each State’s willingness to accept certification from other States.

Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC)
A consortium of SEAs and national educational organizations working to reform the preparation, licensing, and ongoing professional development of teachers.

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What About a National Standard of Certification?

There is no national standard of certification at present, because States individually determine the certification/licensure requirements for their teachers.

You may have heard of National Board Certification, though, a voluntary national certification system for K-12 teachers provided by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). All States recognize National Board Certification, many offer special benefits to nationally certified teachers, and many allow these teachers to carry a license from one State to another. More information is available from NBPTS, including complete standards information for each of the 24 certificates currently offered by NBPTS. Visit NBPTS at:

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HQT and the Prohibition on Waiving of Licensure

Another element in IDEA’s requirements for special education teachers in general is that such teachers may not have had “special education certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis” [§300.18(b)(1)(ii)]. This point requires its own scrutiny.

The waiving of certification and licensure requirements has long been an area of concern in both general and special education. The practice is largely a result of critical teacher shortages, a difficult reality for States and school districts to address and one that leads some States to extend temporary and emergency licenses that bypass State licensing requirements (All Education Schools, 2007). [3] According to the State data collected by the OSEP, “certification or licensure requirements have been waived for eight percent of special education teachers, or approximately 30,000 teachers” (71 Fed. Reg. at 46744). However, given the “strong evidence that students taught by fully certified teachers achieve at higher levels than those with teachers who are certified but teaching out-of-field, or who hold emergency certification” [4], it’s not surprising that special education teachers working with emergency, temporary, or provisional licensure cannot be considered “highly qualified” under IDEA.

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What States Can Do To Address Teacher Shortages and Still Meet HQT Requirements

In the Department’s summary of costs and benefits associated with implementing the IDEA regulations (included in the Analysis of Comments and Changes that accompanied publication of the final Part B regulations), a number of strategies are discussed that States may find helpful in addressing teacher shortages in the face of IDEA’s HQT requirements for special educators. The Department’s analysis is interesting and informative, and has been provided in its entirety at the very end of this article.

The Department also points out that that specific funding is available to States, districts, and others to meet IDEA’s HQT standards.

… section 651 of the Act authorizes State Personnel Development grants to help States reform and improve their systems for personnel preparation and professional development in early intervention, educational, and transition services in order to improve results for children with disabilities. In addition, section 662 of the Act authorizes funding for institutions of higher education, LEAs, and other eligible local entities to improve or develop new training programs for teachers and other personnel serving children with disabilities. (71 Fed. Reg. at 46555)

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[1] National Center for Alternative Certification. (2007). FAQs. Retrieved May 2, 2007, from

[2] National Center for Education Information. (2007). Alternative routes to teacher certification: An overview. Retrieved May 2, 2007, from

[3] All Education Schools. (2007). Common Q&A: Teacher certification and licensure. Retrieved May 2, 2007, from

[4] Education Commission of the State. (2005, December). Eight questions on teacher licensure and certification: What does the research say? Denver, CO: Author. (Quote from page x.) Available online at:

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