No Child Left Behind: A Toolkit for Teachers
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What Does "Highly Qualified" Mean for Teachers?

The Highly Qualified Teacher Provisions of No Child Left Behind

There is much confusion about exactly what No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) highly qualified teacher provisions include and what they mean for individual teachers. In addition to the following brief overview, refer to the section entitled "Questions Teachers Frequently Ask about No Child Left Behind" for more detailed information.

Why No Child Left Behind Includes Provisions on Teacher Qualifications

Recent studies offer compelling evidence that teachers are one of the most critical factors in how well students achieve. For instance, studies in both Tennessee and Texas found that students who had effective teachers greatly outperformed those who had ineffective teachers. In the Tennessee study, students with highly effective teachers for three years in a row scored 50 percentage points higher on a test of math skills than those whose teachers were ineffective.6

Thus, No Child Left Behind includes provisions stating that all teachers in core academic areas must be highly qualified in the core academic subjects they teach by the end of the 2005-06 school year. It also requires that newly hired teachers in Title I programs or schools be highly qualified immediately. A more flexible timeline is allowed for teachers in eligible small, rural schools, who often teach multiple subjects. See page 25 for more information.

All teachers hired after the first day of the 2002-03 school year in Title I schoolwide programs must be highly qualified. However, in Title I targeted-assistance schools, only those teachers paid with Title I funds need to be highly qualified immediately. Check with your district to determine your school designation.

"Highly qualified" is a specific term defined by No Child Left Behind. The law outlines a list of minimum requirements related to content knowledge and teaching skills that a highly qualified teacher would meet. The law, however, also recognizes the importance of state and local control of education and therefore provides the opportunity for each state to develop a definition of highly qualified that is consistent with NCLB as well as with the unique needs of the state.


No Child Left Behind requires all teachers to earn a bachelor's degree in every subject they teach, as well as certification in every subject.


The law requires teachers to have a bachelor's degree and full state certification and to demonstrate content knowledge in the subjects they teach. NCLB requires neither separate degrees nor separate certifications for every subject taught. In fact, under NCLB states decide what is necessary for certification and for determining subject-matter competency.

Teachers Who Teach Core Academic Subjects Must Meet the Definition of Highly Qualified for the Subjects They Teach

The law requires public school elementary and secondary teachers to meet their state's definition of highly qualified teacher for each core academic subject they teach. According to No Child Left Behind, these subjects are English, reading or language arts, math, science, history, civics and government, geography, economics, the arts and foreign language. Special education teachers and teachers of English language learners must be highly qualified if they teach core academic subjects to their students.

How States Determine Their Highly Qualified Teacher Provisions

In general, under No Child Left Behind a highly qualified teacher must have:

  • A bachelor's degree.
  • Full state certification, as defined by the state.
  • Demonstrated competency, as defined by the state, in each core academic subject he or she teaches.

The first requirement is straightforward. For the second, the state has freedom to define certification according to its needs. The state can use this opportunity to strengthen and streamline its certification requirements. It can also create alternate routes to certification.

Regarding the third requirement, states have significant flexibility to design ways to allow teachers to demonstrate competency in the subjects they teach, especially for teachers with experience. The law also requires that states consider the differences between elementary and secondary teachers, as well as differences between newly hired and experienced teachers.

Why No Child Left Behind Focuses on the Importance of Teachers Knowing the Subjects They Teach

Students, parents and educators intuitively believe that a teacher's knowledge of subject matter is critical if students are going to achieve to high standards. As Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says, "You can't teach what you don't know well."7 In addition, research shows that teachers who know the subject matter that they teach are more effective in the classroom.8 Having teachers who know well the content they are teaching is good practice because it leads to improved student learning.

New Elementary School Teachers

Elementary school teachers who are new to the profession must demonstrate competency by passing a rigorous state test on subject knowledge and teaching skills in reading and language arts, writing, math and other areas of the basic elementary school curriculum.

New Middle and High School Teachers

At the middle and high school levels, new teachers must demonstrate competency either by passing a rigorous state test in each subject they teach or by completing an academic major or coursework equivalent to an academic major, an advanced degree or advanced certification or credentials.

Experienced Elementary, Middle School and High School Teachers

Teachers with experience must either meet the requirements for new teachers or demonstrate competency based on a system designed by each state. No Child Left Behind recognizes that many teachers who have experience may already have the qualifications necessary to be considered highly qualified. Therefore, the law allows states to create a high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation (HOUSSE). This standard is defined by each state in line with six basic criteria established in NCLB. HOUSSE allows states to evaluate teachers' subject matter knowledge by recognizing, among other things, their teaching experience, professional development and knowledge in the subject garnered over time in the profession. The law requires that such standards

  • Are set by the state for grade-appropriate academic subject-matter knowledge and teaching skills.
  • Are aligned with challenging state academic content standards and student achievement standards and developed in consultation with core content specialists, teachers, principals and school administrators.
  • Provide objective, coherent information about the teacher's attainment of core content knowledge in the academic subjects in which a teacher teaches.
  • Are applied uniformly to all teachers in the same academic subject and the same grade level throughout the state.
  • Take into consideration, but are not based primarily on, the time a teacher has been teaching the academic subject.
  • Are made available to the public upon request.

This evaluation may involve multiple, objective measures of teacher competency.

Important: Most states have developed their high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation (HOUSSE) standards for experienced teachers. Many are using point systems that allow teachers to count a combination of years of successful classroom experience, participation in high-quality professional development that evaluates what the teacher has learned, service on curriculum-development teams and other important activities related to the development of content-area expertise. As states begin implementing these standards, many experienced teachers will find that they already meet the competency requirements for the subjects they teach. Others may need to take only minimal steps to meet the requirements. Teachers should contact their state department of education to learn about the status of their state's HOUSSE provision for experienced teachers.

Teacher Testing

Under No Child Left Behind, it is not mandatory for all teachers to take a test to determine that they meet their state's highly qualified teacher requirements in the subjects they teach. Testing is required only for new elementary teachers. States have the flexibility to create and make determinations regarding subject-matter tests for teachers, and NCLB allows new and experienced secondary teachers to demonstrate competency through a major or its equivalent in the subject, or through an advanced degree or certification. As each state defines its own grade-level content standards, it should choose appropriate assessments for new teachers and provide opportunities for experienced teachers to demonstrate subject-matter knowledge through a test or other means.

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Last Modified: 08/13/2009