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Why Is Senator Lamar Alexander Removing the Most Important Section in NCLB: Highly Knowledgeable Teachers

Jan 31, 2015 by

There are two dumbfounding aspects of Senator Lamar Alexander’s revision-in-progress of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. (see attachment AEG15033.)  The first is the removal of the conditions set forth in NCLB for determining a “Highly Qualified Teacher.” The second is eliminating the importance of subject matter knowledge for prospective and current teachers.[1]  In 2001, I was still senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and busy completing final details in the teacher licensure regulations I had been asked to overhaul in 1999 when I was hired. The philosophy guiding this revision and the simultaneous revisions of the K-12 standards in all major subjects stressed exactly what has been removed from the fast-tracked overhaul of ESEA/NCLB now taking place. The one section in NCLB that may have done the most to strengthen the education of low-income children was not the annual testing and reporting categories it mandated but the section setting forth the conditions for being labeled a highly qualified teacher and emphasizing the role of content knowledge in teacher effectiveness.  Those conditions and that emphasis are gone in Alexander’s draft version.

They may have been removed because school systems manipulated the HOUSSE plans teachers had to establish to show they were acquiring the subject knowledge needed for teaching the subjects they were already licensed to teach.  HOUSSE stands for High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation.

HOUSSE plans were only one of several options offered.  Teachers could also establish their mastery of the subjects they taught by showing they had had a major in the subject, a passing score on a licensure test of that subject, or a graduate degree in the subject

Each state could work out its own variation of a HOUSSE plan.  Massachusetts told its teachers the following:

NCLB requires teachers to be Highly Qualified by possessing a teaching license and demonstrating subject matter competency in each of the core academic subjects that a teacher teaches. The legislation defines several options for teachers to demonstrate subject matter competency (teacher tests, academic majors, advanced degrees, etc.). One of these options allows states to define a High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation (HOUSSE) as an additional option. In Massachusetts, the HOUSSE option allows educators to demonstrate subject matter competency through an Individual Professional Development Plan (IPDP) that must be initially approved by the teacher’s principal or supervisor.

Connecticut as another example told its teachers the following:

Beginning in school year 2006-07, all individuals teaching in Connecticut public schools at the elementary, middle or high school level, including those teaching special education, must be determined to be “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). “Highly qualified” educators, according to the federal definition, either:

· passed the state subject area assessment;

· hold an undergraduate or graduate major; or

· hold an advance certification such as National Board Certification in each core academic area he or she teaches.

Those currently teaching who cannot document their “highly qualified” status in one of these ways for one or all of the core academic areas they teach, may demonstrate they are “highly qualified” in that subject through the district’s HOUSSE Plan.

As the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) put it in 2011: [2]

While it didn’t solve the many entrenched teacher quality issues, NCLB did make a difference on some fronts. At the time NCLB was passed into law [in 2002], only 29 states required teacher candidates to pass a relatively simple subject matter test that would provide an objective measure of teacher knowledge. Today, 49 states require content knowledge tests.

NCTQ would likely not shed tears about the disappearance of HOUSSE because it judged that “while NCLB helped push states towards demonstrations of content knowledge, the rigor of the required assessments and the standards states set for teachers to demonstrate that they are “HQT” have been disappointingly low.” In its 2011 report, it further declared that “Congress must ensure that all new teachers without exception—at the elementary, middle and secondary level—have passed content knowledge tests in order to be considered HQT. When it comes to new teachers, fundamental knowledge and skills set the foundation for effectiveness, especially when it comes to demonstrating content knowledge. We certainly aren’t saying this is all that matters. But we do contend that, as a basic condition of employment, Title II of the ESEA should continue to require that teachers hold a bachelor’s degree and pass a content knowledge test. Simply put, teachers must know the content for the grades and subjects they will teach. As a result, NCTQ believes that a rigorous subject-matter test should be required of any teaching candidate without exception—regardless of academic major, coursework or experience.

That is, of course, what the changes in ESEA in its first 21st century re-authorization should have aimed for if it sought to make teachers more effective. As the final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel stressed after an exhaustive examination of all the high quality research on the topic in the past 30 years, “Research on the relationship between teachers’ mathematical knowledge and students’ achievement confirms the importance of teachers’ content knowledge. It is self-evident that teachers cannot teach what they do not know.”  It goes so far as to declare that: “The mathematics preparation of elementary and middle school teachers must be strengthened as one means for improving teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom.”[3]

So why did the Alexander draft for ESEA’s re-authorization end up with such weak tea as the following requirement: “Reforming teacher, principal, and other school leader certification, recertification, licensing, or tenure systems to ensure that teachers have the necessary subject matter knowledge and teaching skills in the academic subjects that the teachers teach to help students meet challenging State academic standards?”  So far, there is no example of “challenging State academic standards” or suggested guidelines on how “necessary subject matter knowledge” might be determined or assessed.  Perhaps a re-authorized ESEA needs to give us more specifics.  If so, let Senator Alexander know: FIXINGNCLB@HELP.SENATE.GOV.  We also need an explanation on why a “rigorous subject-matter test” is no longer required for teachers of low-income children.

[3] See the Final Report here at and see the Task Group Report on Teachers and Teacher Education here

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  1. jean sanders

    I object to the statement that we are “manipulating”…. They may have been removed because school systems manipulated the HOUSSE plans..” ONE size does not fit all; that goes for the students as well as the teachers and states and local districts must have some flexibilities.

    This may have been the intent: ” Teachers could also establish their mastery of the subjects they taught by showing they had had a major in the subject, a passing score on a licensure test of that subject, or a graduate degree in the subject. ” however, with cash-wrapped states the situation has become very rigid. To have a Pearson test for teachers that fails a trilingual teacher with 15 years of experience (what is needed in the schools today) — and deny the person a license or a career promotion is too restrictive when the policy is applied . You must get a certain score on a test. That is what we are doing to our students in the K-12 now and it is wrong as well as these exams for our teachers.
    They have set the gates on the locks so tight and rigid — our teacher training program locally (I don’t work there) only graduated 10 teachers this past year and we used to graduate 100 or more. If this is the future that Ms. Stotsky wants to define with rigidity, then I guess you will have to hire the TFA teachers with 5 weeks of training….

  2. jean sanders

    respectfully, having spent 50 years in public education in Massachusetts, I disagree with the picture that Ms. Stotsky has painted here. “the section setting forth the conditions for being labeled a highly qualified teacher and emphasizing the role of content knowledge in teacher effectiveness. ” There were decades of discussions about the “Content” specialty if you are a high school teacher and is it necessary if you are a special educator, or an elementary teacher ,,, one size does not fit all and I would leave these specifics up to the states (I prefer what we have in Massachusetts but I probably wouldn’t be happy in another state). When the regulation is written too specifically it shuts out options and it can be easily used to push an ideological viewpoint. Therefore, I would prefer it be left out of the federal regulation and left to the individual state to decide (as I mentioned, that would work for MASS but maybe not as well in another state?) Ms. Stotsky left Massachusetts and there has been a lot of dialog since that time so I wish she could be updating her views. The current situation of tests that the teacher candidates must take is not the best — we have well qualified people who miss a test by two points and it denies them a certificate, a pay increase, or a job that they are essential qualified for. It is the artifact of a poor test being used to judge a well qualified person. Ms. Stotsky might not know of these concerns. Also, she works now for the University of Walton (totally funded by Walton) and is not in a neutral position where she should be deciding policy for the schools of education.

  3. Barry Stern

    Though I have great respect for Ms. Stotsky, on this issue of “highly qualified teachers” I’ll have to go with the views of Senator Alexander. The U.S. Department of Education can recommend but simply cannot enforce standards for teachers. It has neither the expertise nor the budget to effectively monitor this, nor the clout to make changes should it find something awry. States and local districts are responsible, and each will find its own way to certify quality. The NCLB requirement and for that matter most state requirements for teacher quality can be easily gamed. In fact, just about all districts tend to score above 90-95% on teacher quality. If a measure doesn’t discriminate, why have it? Moreover, such requirements tend not to be predictive of student success. To be sure, our teachers need to know their subjects, and they need to respect, have empathy for and relate well to kids. But these traits are more likely to surface in measures like student proficiency, attendance, promotion and graduation rates, and evaluations by administrators, colleagues, parents and the students themselves. These outcomes are what the federal and state governments should measure; they should be very cautious about specifying institutional inputs. Schools need fewer regulations not more. In short, the federal government should do what it can do well in making a difference, not things that are unlikely to improve conditions in the local schools.


  1. Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D. | UARK – DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION REFORM - […] Stotsky.  Blog on Education Views.  February 1, 2015.  Why is Senator Lamar Alexander Removing the most Important Section in…

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