Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

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This is one of those times when you wish the U.S. Congress had reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)--currently known as NCLB--a few years ago, when it was supposed to. That's assuming, of course, that a reauthorized version would have addressed one of the many problems with NCLB's HQT, or "highly qualified teacher," provision.

The provision was recently at the center of a federal appeals court decision to strike down a federal regulation allowing new teachers taking an alternative-certification route to be considered highly qualified. In Renee v. Duncan, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that the Department of Education's 2004 regulations interpreting the HQT provision go too far in including alt-cert teachers.

This is a reversal of the court's decision in 2009, when it ruled against a coalition of community groups claiming that the federal rule permitted California to flood the classrooms of high-minority, low-income schools with what the state calls "interns." As was voiced in this space in 2007, when the suit was first filed (as Renee v. Spellings), these groups have a point: it's hard to argue that teachers-in-training should be considered highly qualified. But neither should they be discounted altogether.

Determining talents and qualifications is tricky, especially early in a teacher's career. But there are excellent forms of alternative training--among them Teach For America, which has delivered thousands of effective teachers to schools across the country. To divide teachers into just two categories, HQT and non-HQT, simply doesn't make sense.

A reauthorized ESEA could, and should, address this situation--by creating a third category of teachers, subject to its own set of standards--as soon as possible. In the meantime, the new court ruling will have schools scrambling to adhere to the law, possibly by removing talented nontraditional teachers from classrooms that badly need them.