Special Education

Subject Qualification Vexing for Teachers in Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — February 15, 2005 8 min read
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Over her 26-year career, Mary Binegar has taught math, science, social studies, and English to special education students at Urbana High School in Urbana, Ohio.

This year, she’s teaching only social studies to her classes, which mix students with learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and cognitive disabilities.

Under state and federal rules, Ms. Binegar knows she’s highly qualified in that subject because her college major was social studies education, along with a certification in special education. But her four colleagues in the school’s special education department are still working to meet the “highly qualified” standard in at least one of the subject areas they teach. Right now, meeting that standard in Ohio requires 45 hours of training in each subject.

The requirement comes from the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the reauthorized Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Both laws require states to define what makes a highly qualified teacher.

But meeting the standard may be a particular challenge for special education teachers, who might not have majored in a discipline such as English, science, or math before entering the classroom. Under the federal special education law, teachers must be highly qualified in special education as well as every subject they teach.

“These are people who have experience trying to help students, and yet suddenly, they are not ‘highly qualified,’ ” said Ms. Binegar, the chairwoman of the special education department at the 750-student school in the Urbana City School District. “I just think it’s sad that there’s one of the five of us that this works out for.”

Teacher Ellen Dunn on a site visit with a student.

Ellen Dunn, the work-experience educator for students with disabilities in the 11,000-student Fargo, N.D., school district, doesn’t teach academic subjects in her position. But should her district decide to return her to the classroom, she worries, “I would not be highly qualified because I don’t have math and English” and other core-subject knowledge. Her bachelor’s degree was in elementary education and her master’s degree was in special education.

“The thing I find so frustrating is that people say, ‘Well, test them all—plumbers have to take tests,’ ” Ms. Dunn said. “Well, plumbers don’t have master’s degrees. It’s constant education for us.”

Law Prompts Questions

When Congress reauthorized the IDEA in November, lawmakers said their goal was to align the main federal special education law, which affects more than 6.5 million students, with the No Child Left Behind law, which spells out accountability requirements for all public schools. The NCLB mandates include ensuring that a school’s teachers are “highly qualified.”

The reauthorized IDEA requires that teachers of special education students must meet the same standards of quality as teachers of general education students. And the deadline is the same for all teachers—the end of the 2005-06 school year.

But many teachers and special education advocates maintain that the law’s requirement that special education teachers be highly qualified in subject areas has caused more confusion than clarity.

Some states have yet to establish a way to meet the federal standard for special education teachers responsible for more than one subject. Some advocates are concerned that the law creates a loophole that could allow people who have no experience in special education classrooms to become recognized as highly qualified as special education teachers after taking a state-created test.

Others say that teacher-preparation programs may have to restructure themselves so that graduates finish the program highly qualified.

“Overall, it’s going to be very challenging for most states,” said H. Douglas Cox, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “It has taken a lot of reading and rereading to understand.”

Under the reauthorized IDEA special education teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued special education certification, or a degree and a passing score on a state special education licensing exam.

Teachers who work solely in consultation with other highly qualified teachers, for instance as team teachers, need meet only the certification and bachelor’s degree requirements.

But for others, especially secondary school teachers, the process becomes much more complicated.

One option for new and veteran teachers, provided under the No Child Left Behind law, is called HOUSSE, for “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation.” Every state is developing its own evaluation standard, which is intended to offer an alternative for teachers other than taking a test or going back to school. Many of the HOUSSE procedures around the country use a combination of experience, professional training and leadership activities to evaluate teachers.

With the deadline to become highly qualified just a year away, not all states have a HOUSSE in place for teachers of multiple subjects. That has led to much worry among educators, said Patti Ralabate, the National Education Association’s senior professional associate for special education.

“Many teachers are not terribly familiar with the state HOUSSE plans, and they’re confused about what that will mean,” she said.

Confusion Over Definition

Ed Amundson, who teaches students with learning disabilities at the 2,500-student C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento, Calif., finds it ironic that he is qualified to instruct special education teachers-in-training, but that he’s not currently considered competent to teach high school classes in English, U.S. history, government, and economics, as he does now. His bachelor’s degree was in liberal studies, with credentials in K-6 elementary education and kindergarten through adult education for those with learning disabilities. He has a master’s degree in special education.

As a 30-year teaching veteran, Mr. Amundson believes the HOUSSE that California has set will give him credit for his experience. California is among the 30 states that have a menu-system approach to HOUSSE. In that state, years of teaching experience, professional training, school leadership, direct observation or assessment of lesson plans are all assigned point values. Experience, for example, counts for up to 50 points; 20 hours of professional development is worth five points.

A teacher with at least 100 points among the various categories is highly qualified. Professional development and other learning experiences can make up the other points Mr. Amundson needs, he said, but he believes he would have to file paperwork for every subject he teaches. And newer teachers who can’t get credit for years of experience may have to earn their points in other ways, such as by going back to college to take more courses, he said.

“It puts an incredible burden on the new teachers to actually have to go back and take coursework,” Mr. Amundson said.

Some states have devised a multisubject HOUSSE, and their teachers are already receiving classifications as highly qualified.

Julie Mokhtee, who teaches social studies, reading, and personal development to special education students at Topeka High School in Kansas, filled out a questionnaire in early 2004 listing her service, professional development courses, and school leadership activities. That summer, she received a certificate in the mail that stated she was highly qualified. Kansas has written a standard that can be used for teachers who instruct students in multiple subjects.

“We didn’t really have to do anything extra,” said Ms. Mokhtee, who has spent almost all her career at the 2,000-student school in the Topeka Public School District.

But she worries that the “highly qualified” standards stress academic-content knowledge at the expense of knowing how to deal with challenging students.

“You better not just be well versed in content. You’ve got to know how to deal with these kids,” Ms. Mokhtee said. “Some days, we don’t even get to the content.”

Regulations Coming

Another challenge of the IDEA requirement is that teacher training will have to reflect the new standards.

“What can we do to get people who have the skills to meet the ‘highly qualified’ standards when they come out?” said Mr. Cox of the state directors’ association. He has started talking with colleges and universities in Virginia, where he serves as the assistant state superintendent for special education and student services.

Jane West, the governmental relations consultant for the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education, a group of colleges and universities that have doctoral programs in special education, said that colleges will have to examine their programs in partnership with individual states, which certify teachers.

“Universities really cannot do that independently,” Ms. West said. “It’s a procedure that is clearly beginning to take place.”

The NEA had proposed that state certification be proof enough that a teacher is highly qualified in special education.

“Trying to make a federal definition for people who are prepared in such different ways at the state level is very, very difficult,” said Ms. Ralabate, the union official.

Under the reauthorized IDEA, there’s a way teachers can become highly qualified without any special education teaching experience at all. States may administer licensing exams that can work in place of a special education certification. Such teachers would still have to demonstrate subject-area mastery.

“We’re not really happy that you can take a test to become highly qualified,” said Daniel Blair, the senior director of public policy for the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, an organization dedicated to improving education for students with disabilities and gifted students.

The U.S. Department of Education has started on a monthlong effort to gather public input on what should be included in regulations to carry out the reauthorized IDEA. “Hopefully, the regs will help clarify some of this confusion, but they’re not going to change the law,” said Mr. Cox.

And teachers are waiting. Said Fargo’s Ms. Dunn: “We’re in limbo.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Subject Qualification Vexing for Teachers in Special Education

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