Highly qualified?

Another key change that I think must be made in our education system is what we consider to be ‘Highly Qualified’, particularly with respect to the elementary school level.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires three things (listed below) to be considered a Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT). Note that to teach any core subject area (English, reading and language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history and geography) a teacher, by law, must be highly qualified. This includes Special Education teachers providing direct instruction. I will address each of these requirements in turn.

  1. Full certification
  2. Bachelor’s degree
  3. Demonstrated competence in the subject knowledge and pedagogy

Full Certification

I don’t have much of an issue with this requirement for secondary teachers. The vast majority of high school (grades 8-12) teachers are certified in a single subject. For example, my Texas certification is for Mathematics 8-12. This means I am able to teach anything from Pre-Algebra to Calculus and everything in between. To get that certification, I had to successfully pass a math test that assessed my knowledge in that wide range of math.

But, the vast majority of elementary and probably a healthy majority of middle school teachers have a Generalist certification. This gives them the ability to teach any of the above listed core subjects in a range of grades (usually either PreK through sixth, or fourth through eighth). So, a generalist certified teacher may teach 6th grade math one year, 7th grade social studies the next year and 5th grade reading the year after that. It is certainly true that some middle school teachers have a subject specific certification, but, in my experience, that is the exception rather than the rule.

Rare is the person that is truly competent at teaching that many disparate subjects. “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes immediately to mind. They may know how to add fractions, but do they have the foundational background to be able to teach students how to add fractions. I love to read and consider myself to be a decent writer…but God forbid if I would ever have to actually teach an English class. Just because you may have the knowledge to teach any subject does not mean you should (or could).

Bachelor’s degree

Again, for high school teachers this means having a degree in the subject he/she is teaching (like my B.S. in Mathematics). There is an allowance (which I am OK with) that allows a science or social studies teacher to be certified across that subject. For instance, a person with a degree in Biology would, in certain circumstances, still be allowed to teach Physics. These teachers also have an option of taking a ‘composite’ exam which would allow them to teach any subject in that field. (More on this in a minute)

For elementary teachers, a Bachelor’s degree in Primary Education would fulfill this requirement. No specific subject degree or even coursework is required for elementary teachers. In fact, by the letter of NCLB, a primary teacher does not even need to have a degree in Education. Any Bachelor’s degree, regardless of major, would fulfill the requirement. So, your child’s fourth grade teacher could have a degree in anything at all and, as long as they meet the other requirements, still be Highly Qualified.

Demonstrated Competence

For elementary school teachers, this often means passing a state-administered Generalist exam. This exam covers English, Math, Science and Social Studies and are aligned to what the students would need to be taught across the grade levels. If they pass that test, then they have ‘demonstrated competence’ to teach every core subject area to any student in grade K-6. Many middle school teachers also have a Generalist certification. I have met many teachers that bounce around from subject to subject each year. They don’t like it because they can’t ‘get into a groove’ and students can suffer because a teacher may be forced to teach a subject that they may not be as strong in. But that’s OK, because that test they passed says they are ‘competent’. <end sarcasm>

There is no Generalist certification for high school. Each teacher must pass a subject specific test to demonstrate knowledge in that area. It is my opinion that this should be the same for elementary and middle school teacher. Since teachers are human beings, they are better at certain things than others. What could possibly be wrong with having elementary teachers have subject specific certifications? I am not necessarily advocating a seven year old first grader changing classrooms six times a day (though I don’t see why that couldn’t work), but why not have the teachers change rooms? A math certified first grade teacher would just rotate rooms and teach that lesson to different groups of kids…sort of a mirror image of what happens in most high schools.

Why do I think this is important? Simple…the kids deserve it. If your child’s 4th grade teacher has never been comfortable with fractions, what are the chances that your child will be comfortable with fractions? If you’re child’s 2nd grade teacher does not have specific knowledge in how to teach reading and interpreting text, how much time will it take to fix that damage in later years?

We must work toward tightening the requirements for educators. Some folks might say that doing so might further shrink the people wanting to get into education, but I disagree. If we make clear that teaching our kids is not something to be entered into lightly and that we take the qualifications of our teachers seriously, then maybe we can again start attracting the best and brightest in the fields to be our educators.

Side note: Here is a very interesting perspective from an American currently teaching in Finland. I’m particularly fascinated by #3.




  1. Tightening the requirements? Hammy, we can’t attract enough intelligent, energetic people into the profession as it is.
    Here’s the reality: College level teacher edumacation programs are compelled to teach to the middle, or the bottom-middle, of the teacher candidates they are able to enroll. Make the courses themselves more rigorous, and students will complain. I’ve seen this. Make the overall degree requirements more rigorous, and the business department will thank you, because that’s where a lot of education majors will migrate to.
    You state that “maybe we can again start attracting the best and brightest…” To when are you referring? Maybe… maybe forty or more years ago when women’s career options were limited, the overall quality of teachers was higher. Maybe. But those conditions no longer exist. At present, on the whole, education majors have the lowest, or next to lowest, or next-to-next to lowest SAT scores among college students.
    There is a way to change this in a capitalistic society. It’s the way businesses such as Toyota approach the problem when they want better engineers; it’s the way the U.S. Navy attracts competent officers; it’s the way professional sports teams recruit and retain the best coaches and players. They offer a compensation package sufficient to acquire the talent they desire. Punishing people while holding them to “higher standards” didn’t work in the Soviet Union. I don’t know why anyone thinks it’s part of the solution in American education.
    I’d love to visit Finland and see first-hand what’s working there and why. One thing to consider is this: Although I can’t find really current data, in the not-too-distant past, salaries for Finish teachers, As Measure in Terms of Percentage of GDP, were among the highest in the world. This is significant, because it suggests Finland’s teachers have more real purchasing power than do their counterparts in most other countries. This in a country where the middle class is alive and well means that teachers can live as well or better than most college grads in other fields. That’s a big difference from America, where, in many locales, a teacher’s salary does not permit one to afford a good house in a safe neighborhood near good schools.

    1. Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this post. Let me say right off the bat that I completely agree with the points you made with respect to teacher salaries, and using those to get the ‘best and brightest’. The direction I was going with that is, interestingly enough, based on what Finland does. You are correct in stating their salaries are considerably higher. But they also require a Masters degree before stepping foot in a classroom. The seats in the college/graduate school level education programs are highly sought after and are ridiculously competitive. (If you haven’t read Pasi Sahlberg’s book ‘Finnish Lessons’, I highly recommend it. Addresses many of these same points.)
      When I wrote this post on Monday it was a total brain-dump kind of thing, prompted by a conversation I had with one of my colleagues during our lunch period at the school I currently teach at. The primary opinion I wanted to convey was the importance of having subject specialists teaching our kids even at the earliest grade levels. When I write off the cuff like I did for this, I tend to go off on tangents and do not state things as elegantly as I would like.
      Thank you again for taking the time to respond.

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