Federal law mandates that all teachers, including special educators, must be highly qualified by meeting standards for licensure in the academic content areas they teach. This provision has an impact on prospective and practicing teachers, on schools and school systems, and on colleges and universities, especially those in rural areas. This study surveyed special education teachers, school administrators, and faculty members in a rural state to identify their perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks of the highly qualified teacher requirement and its effect on the field of special education. The results reveal that stakeholders' perceptions of the impact of the highly qualified teacher requirements are positive as well as negative and reflect both their respective roles in special education and the rural contexts in which they work.
In 2001, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, making major changes in federal education policy, including adding a provision that all teachers must be "highly qualified." The intention of the highly qualified requirement in NCLB is to hold expectations that teachers are better prepared for the task of promoting academic achievement by all students (Safier, 2007). One facet of this requirement is that all teachers must hold a baccalaureate degree and a teaching license, including qualifications in the academic content areas they are assigned to teach (Reese, 2004). NCLB mandated that by the end of 2006, all teachers must be "highly qualified," a deadline that was later extended to the end of the 2007 school year (Henig, 2006).
The implications of the highly qualified requirement in NCLB and its effects on education have been widely discussed (Safier, 2007). In 1999-2000, the academic year just prior to the enactment of NCLB, 99% of public school teachers had at least a baccalaureate degree and some graduate training, and nearly 92% had regular teaching certificates. Even though most teachers held professional teaching certificates, approximately 20% taught some courses outside of their field of expertise (Ingersoll, 2003). These teachers would not be considered highly qualified under NCLB.
Districts have struggled to find highly qualified teachers, sometimes making difficult decisions. Some school districts will hire a teacher for a position out of convenience rather than competence because the process of finding a qualified teacher can take time and money that the district cannot afford (Ingersoll, 2005). Decisions made under pressure to fill a teaching position can be detrimental to the achievement of students and ultimately mislead parents as to the quality of instruction their child is receiving. Some principals feel pressured to hire teachers who are highly qualified rather than teachers who fit the school or job better. School administrators believe that veteran teachers faced with the need to meet additional requirements to become highly qualified are leaving teaching positions (Roelike & King Rice, 2008).
In the United States, 32.3% of schools are designated as rural. These schools educate 9,039,731 students (19.5% of the nation's students). Fourteen percent of rural education students qualify for special education services (Rural School and Community Trust, 2009). Rural schools have found it particularly difficult to attract and retain teachers, leaving the areas with fewer well qualified and fully certified personnel as compared to their urban counterparts (Monk, 2007). Rural schools face the challenges of low teacher pay and few professional development opportunities when hiring highly qualified teachers (USGAO, 2004).
Teacher recruitment and retention are also problematic issues in the field of special education. Nationally, the shortage of fully certified special education teachers has increased from 7.4 % in 19931994 to 12.2% in 2001-2002, while the number of additionally needed special education teachers increased from 25,000 to 49,000 in the same time period (Boe & Cook, 2006). …