One of the most anxiously awaited aspects of the recently reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was the finalization of the requirements for qualifications for special education teachers. The new requirements, found in IDEA 2004 s definition of Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT), are tightly aligned with the HQT provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which seek to ensure that students have access to high-quality instruction and challenging curriculum.

In updating the IDEA, Congress found that the education of children with disabilities, including learning disabilities (LD), can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom to the maximum extent possible.

If students with LD are going to succeed in school, they must have access to teachers who know the general curriculum, as well as support from teachers trained in instructional strategies and techniques that address their specific learning needs. Unfortunately, studies have shown that students with LD are often the victims of watered down curriculum and teaching approaches that are neither individualized nor proven to be effective.

This article addresses the essential requirements for Highly Qualified Teachers and their implications for students with learning disabilities.

Q: What basic requirements must teachers meet to be “highly qualified”?

A: First, NCLB maintains the overarching authority for the requirements to be “highly qualified.” Those requirements are:

All general education teachers of core academic subjects (see box below) must be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. To be considered highly qualified, these teachers must:

  • have a bachelor’s degree,
  • have full state certification or licensure, and
  • prove that they know each subject they teach (Elementary school teachers must demonstrate knowledge of teaching reading and math.)

Core Academic Subjects

Core academic subjects, as defined by NCLB, are: English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history and geography. Note that special education is not considered a core academic subject.

Some exceptions apply. For example, teachers hired after the start of the 2002-03 school year to teach in Title I schools had to meet the HQT requirement when hired, while multi-subject teachers in small rural schools have some added flexibility in meeting the HQT requirements.

Exactly how teachers demonstrate subject matter competency depends on whether they are new or veteran teachers, and whether they teach at the elementary or secondary level. All of these NCLB requirements are designed to end the temporary, emergency, provisional, and out-of-level credentialing practices that many states and districts have used.

IDEA 2004 establishes additional requirements and options, beyond those contained in NCLB. These include:

All special education teachers (whether they teach core subjects or not) must:

  • Hold at least a bachelor’s degree; and
  • Obtain full state special education certification or equivalent licensure by the end of the 2005- 2006 school year. (As noted above in relation to general education teachers, special education teachers who hold emergency, temporary, or provisional certification do not meet this requirement.)

Special education teachers who provide direct instruction in core academic subjects must meet the above requirements as well as prove that they know each subject they teach, while special education teachers who consult to highly qualified general education teachers need not demonstrate subject-matter competency.

Note: Some exceptions apply for special education teachers who provide direct instruction in core subjects to students with disabilities who are assessed against “alternative achievement standards” under NCLB (presumably these are students with the most significant levels of cognitive disabilities), as well as new special education teachers who teach two or more core academic subjects and who are highly qualified in either math, language arts, or science.

Q: Under what circumstances or conditions are special education teachers not required to be “highly qualified” in a core subject?

A: According to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, activities that special education teachers can carry out that do not require them to be highly qualified in the particular subject include:

  • Consultation on the adaptation of curricula
  • Consultation with teachers on using behavioral supports and interventions or selecting appropriate accommodations
  • Assisting students with study and organizational skills
  • Reinforcing instruction that was given previously by a teacher who was highly qualified

Q: Why is this distinction important for students with LD?

A: To a large degree, students with LD receive their special education services through the “resource” model. This model includes receiving services from special education teachers who either pull students with disabilities out of regular education classrooms or who go into regular education classrooms to provide specialized services, such as supplemental instruction in reading or math, for students with disabilities.

Instruction delivered by a special education teacher within the resource model described above would indicate that such a teacher need not be highly qualified in the academic subject. However, it is important that the supplemental instruction be both highly individualized and delivered with the intensity necessary to provide adequate progress as required by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). At the same time, the guidance that has been provided to school districts clearly states that this type of instruction is “supplemental” and not designed to replace instructional services being delivered by the general education teacher, who must be highly qualified in the content area.

Q: How can a parent use these provisions to maximize a child’s academic achievement?

A: First, parents must be keenly aware of the instructional model that is being used to deliver specialized instruction to their child. If a consultative approach is the instructional method, parents need to make sure that:

  • The special educator is highly qualified in special education, and
  • The general educator is highly qualified in the content area (in addition to the other requirements).

Second, parents also need to understand several requirements of NCLB regarding their “right to know” about the qualifications of the teachers who are teaching their students. In all districts that accept Title I funds (90 percent of the districts in the country) schools must notify parents of their right to ask for and receive specific information about a teacher’s qualifications at the beginning of each school year. The district must provide the information in a timely manner. At a minimum, the information must include:

  • Whether the teacher has met the state’s qualification and licensing criteria for the grade levels and subject matter he or she teaches;
  • Whether the state has waived its qualification and licensing criteria to permit the teacher to teach on an emergency or other provisional basis;
  • The teacher’s college major, any graduate certification or degrees the teacher has, and the field of discipline of those certificates or degrees; and
  • Whether teachers’ aides or similar paraprofessionals provide services to the child and, if they do, their qualifications.

Additionally, Title I schools must notify parents if their child has been taught for 4 or more consecutive weeks by a teacher who does not meet the HQ requirements.

Be sure to take advantage of these “right-to-know” provisions regarding the quality of the teachers who are teaching your child. While “highly qualified” doesn’t necessarily equate to highly effective, high-quality instruction begins with a well qualified teacher.