The Highly Qualified Teacher Debate

By Edwin C. Darden

While President Obama and Congress are debating what teacher quality means, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck a blow of its own recently, ruling that only fully credentialed and certified teachers can wear the label “highly qualified.”

The decision is an interpretation of the “highly qualified” provision of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and it holds significance for all school districts both in perception and in policy. In essence, it means that teaching interns -- such as those in the popular Teach for America program -- who are making “satisfactory progress” toward full certification cannot be counted as being equivalent to full-fledged teachers, for NCLB purposes.

The reasoning of the majority judges in the 2-1 decision was literal: The designation of “highly qualified” means having crossed all of the requisite hurdles, not just having worked in that direction. Until a teacher earns full credentials, the court implied, calling someone highly qualified would portray a falsehood to the public and violate the expectations of Congress.

Interestingly enough, the lawsuit was initially on shaky ground. A panel of the 9th Circuit Appeals court in San Francisco ruled in 2009 that the plaintiffs, Sonya Renee and a cadre of community groups, lacked legal standing to bring the case; the court ordered it dismissed. To have legal standing, the person bringing the suit must suffer direct harm. Renee and California ACORN spoke on behalf of children, alleging that teaching interns were predominantly being assigned to California schools with a majority of low-income and minority students.

Renee v. Duncan challenged the U.S. Department of Education’s regulation permitting teachers in alternative-route teacher training programs to be classified as highly qualified.

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