The Highly Unqualified Teacher

Remember the early days of No Child Left Behind? When everyone was trying to figure out precisely who was a ‘highly qualified’ teacher, under federal regulations?

Here is a sample state document—15 pages’ worth—of the required coursework, majors and minors, certifications, licensure tests and ongoing professional development credits that a classroom teacher needed to be deemed highly qualified, under NCLB. Your mileage, in other states, may vary—but not much. The feds were all about making sure the most capable and knowledgeable folks were in front of our public school classrooms.

Or so they said.

At the time, the education community protested: WE should be the ones to determine whether someone (a certified someone, with a college degree, of course) is qualified to teach X! We have seen that person in action!

But federal guidelines, and states that rolled over for them, caused havoc in public schools across the country. In my middle school, it meant that a beloved veteran– but elementary-certified–8th grade English teacher found himself teaching 3rd grade, one of many personnel shuffles.

Teachers with advanced degrees went back to take courses they could have taught themselves. Rural districts, where one Science teacher covered Biology, Earth Science, and Chemistry and Physics in alternate years, found themselves with a host of ‘unqualified’ teachers who’d been on the job, doing yeoman work, for years.

An avalanche of irritated hoop-jumping ensued.  So that all teachers could be highly qualified. Professional. Experts in their fields. On paper, anyway.

That was then.

There’s been a lot of press lately about the lack of qualified substitute teachers as we navigate a raging global pandemic. States are lowering—really, seriously lowering—the bar to get temporary but warm bodies in classrooms, to keep school doors open.

But chronic substitute shortages have been around (poorly-paid canaries in the teacher preparation coalmine) for decades. I spent three full (non-consecutive) years of my life substitute teaching, in addition to occasional sub gigs as a retired teacher. It usually takes an adult beverage for me to share the details of how those year-long stints came about, but my experience is confirmation that substitute teaching on a day-by-day basis is pretty random.

Some days, the kids are actually moving forward—the teacher has left solid plans and it’s clear that you’re in a place where order is the daily norm. Other days? I once was assigned a 5th grade and arrived to find these plans: ‘Reading—groups. Math—division. Science—rockets.’ That was all—six words.  Try to imagine a well-meaning school bus driver-turned-sub attempting to make lemonade out of that for seven hours.

It’s not the substitute teacher pool I’m worried about right now, however. It’s last-ditch moves (after more than a decade of warnings) to fix the leaky teacher pipeline during a pandemic that are really scary. Worth pointing out: if there were ample trained teachers available to work, and acceptable conditions for them (including compensation), the substitute problem would shrink and vanish.

But first, teaching, as a career, must be reconceptualized. We’re rapidly moving in the wrong direction on that score.

It is entirely possible to create an effective and enthusiastic teacher workforce, state by state. It would take time, money and research-based pedagogical expertise, but we, too, could have a uniformly professional teacher pool.  State and school-based leaders have proposed viable plans to begin doing just that.

We could also find alternative ways to bring job-changers and other school staff into the classroom, by dedicating real money and programming into mentoring, on-the-job professional learning, and skill/content development for those who want a longer-term career in teaching.

What doesn’t help is uninformed legislation to get highly UNqualified teachers into schools right away—and highly publicized hand-wringing over the pandemic-driven ‘crisis’ of unstaffed classrooms. It’s a crisis, all right, but it’s a temporary crisis (and one produced by bad education policies over time, more than COVID).

Speaking of bad policy, there’s a bill currently in the MI legislature to allow college students studying education to become teachers of record. These are not student teachers or even students who have been admitted to candidacy in a selective teacher training program. They’re just college students who wish to teach one day, maybe:

The bill differentiates these aspiring teachers from “student teachers.” The uncertified teachers allowed under the new bill would be paid for their work, and, unlike when working as a student teacher, the bill would allow them to teach completely on their own, without a mentor present in the room.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R) (ironically, a former art teacher) said this:  

“We’re at the point where we’re voting to put anyone with a pulse and breathing in a classroom to sub. We need to do something.”

Well, yeah. We needed to do something decades ago, but we followed our usual ‘starve public education’ modus operandi, and it caught up with us during an unanticipated public health crisis. So now we’re hoping ‘aspiring’ 19 year-olds will bail us out?

Bad policy on top of bad policy.

But this feels like more than another dumb idea from a Republican legislator (the MI Department of Ed, the teachers’ unions, universities and Democrats are all adamantly opposed, by the way). It feels like just another strategy to weaken and compromise public education by further de-professionalizing teaching.

Lower the bar into teaching, because EMERGENCY! Then, demand that new and inexperienced teachers share a years’ worth of lesson plans, assignments and ‘topics’ so they can be scrutinized by fired-up parents, or cost their district five percent of its already meager state funding.

Kind of makes you wish for the good old days when the bad policy was at least nominally trying to do the right thing by building some highly qualified teachers.


  1. Thanks for pulling these threads together. The school arguments these days are whiplash-inducing. When they decided to use the national guard all I could think of was the panic over the “highly-qualified teacher” era. We are indeed on a deeply inclined slipper slope.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. You know where I used to work. As NCLB HQT language was rolling out, we were convinced that our NB Certified AYA teachers could cover, say, four branches of secondary Science classes, as they had been evaluated (both in portfolio entries and content assessments) on all of them, and passed. But the US ED balked–they wanted majors and minors in each sub-field, and didn’t see NBPTS’s assessments as valid in determining who was a HQT. Mostly, I think it was because they didn’t understand the NB process and didn’t want to affirm it, if it wasn’t politically aligned with their goals. I spent lots of time on the phone talking to people at the ED, going around in the same circles: What did it mean to be highly qualified? Coursework, majors/minors, degrees–they understood that. But not NBC.

      That was 20 years ago. We used to think we had problems. Sigh.



  2. I am sorry to say I see this all being intentional. I remember the days in special ed. for example where you had to have the preparation for certification in order to teach, and they were strict about this in my school districts. Now there are so many alternative teaching programs. A parent might take it for granted their child’s teacher has the right background and degrees, but do they really know?

    Liked by 1 person


    1. Exactly. As I mentioned to Mary Tedrow, lots of people who are making laws and policy are basing the creation on their own inaccurately remembered school days. And special ed–OMG. The confusion and boundary-crossing there is endemic.



  3. From “highly qualified” to anyone with a pulse. The ultimate insult to America’s teachers.
    We high school educators could see it coming when our students who graduated high school and returned from college four years later to express their pride about their new job in engineering – at nearly three times the starting teacher pay.

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Do you remember when Arne Duncan was pushing laws to evaluate university education departments based on the test scores of the students of the teachers who graduated from these uni. ed. dept.’s, and then punish those departments, again, based on the low student scores of students taught by their alumni?

    For more nutty nostalgia, how about the time when Arne Duncan went to bat for TFA teachers, folks who never stepped foot in a classroom, with Arne, as Sec. or Ed, putting out a mandate that declared TFA Corps Members “highly qualified?” This, in turn, prompted a lawsuit against this that Duncan lost in Fall 2010, in which the court ruled that Duncan’s regulations unlawfully diluted the “highly qualified” requirement. This then prompted Obama & Duncan, a months later, to pass a federal law to amend NCLB to declare TFA Corps Members “highly qualified.”



    1. Why yes, I remember all of that. Clearly.
      I was working for a national education non-profit as a Teacher in Residence, when NCLB was rolled out, and spent lots of time trying to determine if the teachers we were working with (National Bd Certified Teachers) were highly qualified in the subject areas and developmental levels in which they were assessed. ED was tangled up in trying to figure out just who was highly qualified. First, they said yes–teachers who were NB certified were highly qualified even if they didn’t have a major in, say, Biology, but were teaching it. Then they said–wait. Tell us about this certification. How does it prove teachers are highly qualified? Then they stopped taking our calls.

      All of this bit me in the rear when I returned to my school after the TIR experience and was assigned to teach 7th grade math. I have a major and two minors in music, and was certified to teach K-12 music. I was NB Certified as an Early Adolescence Generalist, however (a designation that NBPTS no longer uses, once designed to certify those in middle grades who taught multiple subjects). The superintendent said: Hey, you have that fancy certification. You can teach anything, right? It was a long year, but I did learn to use a graphing calculator.

      The ultimate slap in the face was the TFA boondoggle, of course. I guess if someone graduates from Harvard… they must be able to do whatever it is they think they can do.



  5. “We could also find alternative ways to bring job-changers and other school staff into the classroom,”

    There is so much more in your post that deserves much more attention, but this tidbit caught me. In my state if you “switch careers” and become a teacher late in the game, your social security benefit will be reduced by 2/3 of your pension once you retire. That’s right. It’s a windfall if you get what’s due you from social security because you get a teacher’s pension for the time you spent as a teacher when you were not contributing to SS. What!!? Get this. It even applies to spousal benefits! I spent years as a substitute making a pittance before returning to full-time (which was half time + for the first three years). No one ever told me that by teaching I was giving up a substantial amount of retirement income. Career switchers beware! Be sure your state does not participate in the windfall scam. I never thought I would make much from a pension, but I didn’t expect my time in the private sector to be discounted or to lose most of my spousal benefits either. Unlike me, imagine someone who has not amassed a retirement nest egg facing this situation.

    On another note, they have been playing the “change certification rules” game for a long time. I was trained in one area of special education, but when the state found themselves short of some low incidence specialists, all of a sudden I was “qualified” to teach a much broader range of specialties. I never knew I was so talented as when the “highly qualified” scam began with NCLB. The moneyed reformers and their pseudo education experts have made an incredible mess of things.

    Along with all the other indignities teachers have faced, is it any wonder that there is a teacher shortage? You have done a marvelous job of documented this long running fiasco.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. Thanks for your well-informed (and depressing) comment.

      I remember talking to a teacher from CA at an education event luncheon, and she mentioned that because she was a teacher she would not be able to draw Social Security at retirement–only her pension. I was dumbfounded–what? Every state has different rules about retirement benefits for teachers, and because newbie teachers seldom pay attention to these little details (and almost half of them quit by Year 5), the long-term disadvantages of teaching (besides, you know, poor pay and working conditions) are hard to illustrate to the general public.

      I once worked (as a side hustle) e-mentoring career switchers, for a large national corporation. These employees had worked for Company XXX for 20+ years, and were eligible for vested pensions there. The company paid for them to return to school and gave them a stipend during student teaching–which is the only reason I took the job, because they were fully trained and certified. They were all in STEM-related fields and Company XXX used it as PR to show they were ‘giving back’ by sending their early retirees into classrooms. They were also, not coincidentally, saving a lot of money by investing a relative pittance in tuition and stipends, then bumping these folks off the regular payroll.

      The most noticeable common characteristic was that they all seemed to believe they were vastly more qualified than their traditionally trained, veteran school colleagues–because they had been Chemistry or Computer Science majors, not ‘education majors’ (although very few secondary teachers are education majors). Their workplace experience, they felt, trumped 20 years of disciplinary teaching. Many of them talked about how nice it would be not to work so hard–to have their weekends and summers free.

      They got over that pretty quickly, and some of them went on to become committed to teaching (at least for the two years I was mentoring them). Others, not so much. I worked with one guy who was appalled to find that developing lesson plans would be his job–that they weren’t already laid out (which he thought would be way more ‘efficient’). His teaching colleague shared plans for the first month, then told my guy he was on his own. And he had two preps! Is this normal, he asked me–making multiple plans for every day? Yes, I told him. The kicker was that his ‘two’ preps were Chemistry and AP Chemistry.

      Still–I think it’s worth the effort to recruit from school support staff and people from the community who would like to teach. Maturity is a big plus for novice teachers.



  6. “Bad policy on top of bad policy.”

    As of tomorrow, the #RedforEd campaign here in Arizona is in its fourth year and conditions are no better than when the campaign first started. Soman et al. (2021)* mention that even as classes in Arizona are currently at 68% capacity due to the pandemic, the teacher student ratios are still 23.5:1–the national average is 16:1. I am still confused as to why public servants want to delegitimize institutions that serve the public.

    *Predicting COVID-19’s Effects on Education Quality with Arizona (October 12, 2021). Available at SSRN:



    1. Thanks for your comment, SC.
      In 1994, I attended a National Teacher Forum in D.C. with all of the state Teachers of the Year, the US Dept of Ed and Secretary of Education Richard Reilly. Our theme was something like ‘Honor What We Say’–we *knew* how to fix public education (and it wasn’t just more money). There were 8 Forums. And the National Bd Certified Teachers met at summer teacher leadership conferences (paying their own way, of course) for a dozen years, and each year we developed new plans to get the teacher voice ‘at the table.’ The RedforEd campaign is another absolutely worthy initiative—I could name a dozen more. And public servants are still delegitimizing institutions that serve the public.

      Bad policy on top of bad policy.

      I am running for County Commissioner, because as a retired teacher it feels like the only change-makers are those in office.



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