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U.S. Department of Education: Promoting Educational Excellence for all Americans

Requirement for State certification for highly qualified special education teachers

Section 300.156(c) requires that each person employed as a public school special education teacher who teaches in an elementary, middle, or secondary school be highly qualified, as defined in Sec. 300.18, by the deadline established in section 1119(a)(2) of the ESEA, no later than the end of the 2005-2006 school year. Section 300.18(b)(1) requires that every public elementary and secondary school special education teacher obtain full State certification as a special education teacher or pass the State special education teacher licensing examination, and hold a license to teach in the State as a special education teacher as one of the conditions of being considered highly qualified to teach as a special education teacher. Previously, special education teachers were not required by Federal law to be certified as special education teachers in their States. The regulations preclude teachers for whom the special education certification or licensure requirements have been waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis from meeting the definition of a highly qualified special education teacher. Teachers employed by a public charter school are exempt from these requirements and are subject to the requirements for highly qualified teachers in their State's public charter school law.

The impact of the requirement in the final regulations that all special education teachers have full special education certification depends on whether States and districts comply with the requirement by helping existing teachers who lack certification acquire it, or by hiring new fully-certified teachers, or some combination of the two.

According to State-reported data collected by the Department's Office of Special Education Programs, certification or licensure requirements have been waived for eight percent of special education teachers, or approximately 30,000 teachers. If States and districts respond to the statutory change reflected in the final regulations by hiring certified teachers to fill these positions, it could cost well over $1 billion to cover the salaries for a single year. (Occupational Employment and Wages Survey, November 2004, indicates a median national salary of $44,330 for elementary school teachers and $46,300 for secondary school teachers.) However, given that the Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education (SPENSE) found that in 1999-2000, 12,241 positions for special education teachers were left vacant or filled by substitute teachers because suitable candidates could not be found, it is unlikely that States and districts can meet this requirement through hiring.

The SPENSE study also found that 12 percent of special education teachers who lack full certification in their main teaching assignment field are fully certified in their main teaching assignment field in another State. This means that States should be able to certify an estimated 3,600 additional special education teachers at relatively little expense through reciprocal certification agreements with other States.

Responses to the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey indicate that nearly 10 percent (approximately 3,000 teachers) of special education teachers who lacked full certification, including those teaching under provisional, temporary, or emergency certification, were enrolled in a program to obtain State certification. If teachers already participating in a certification program are presumed to be within 10 semester hours of meeting their coursework requirements and the estimated cost of a semester hour in a university or college program is $200, then it would cost $6 million to help these teachers obtain full State certification. If teachers require more than 10 semester hours to complete their certification programs, it is unlikely they will be able to obtain certification through coursework in a timely manner.

States and districts are unlikely to be able to meet these requirements entirely through reciprocity agreements and college and university programs. The above estimates involve fewer than 7,000 of the approximately 30,000 teachers who lack full certification. Other options States and districts might use to certify the more than 23,000 remaining teachers include assessments of academic skill and subject matter knowledge and professional development. Assessment requirements for special education teachers vary across States and teaching assignment fields, but most States require at least two subject matter tests, a general test on core content knowledge, and a disability-specific test, for special education teacher certification. The average cost of each test is $75. The SPENSE study found that one-fourth of beginning special education teachers who took a certification test reported having to take it more than once before passing. If States and districts certified the remaining 23,000 teachers through existing assessments and 25 percent of the teachers took the tests twice, the cost would be approximately $4.3 million.

Some subset of special education teachers currently teaching through waivers will require additional training to obtain special education certification. The cost of certifying these teachers depends on State special education certification requirements and the types of professional development needed to help these teachers meet the requirements. Most studies in the year 2000 found that district expenditures for professional development range from one to four percent of a district's total budget or $2,062 per teacher. If 18,000 teachers need additional training, costing an average expenditure of $2,000 per teacher for professional development, the cost of certifying these teachers through training would be $36 million.

Because there is little information available on what is required to implement these statutory changes and the cost of doing so, the Secretary concludes that the cost may be significant given the number of special education teachers who lack certification. The Secretary further concludes that the benefits of State certification may not necessarily outweigh the costs.

The Secretary believes that teacher certification can be a valuable tool in ensuring that teachers have the knowledge and skills they need to help students meet high academic standards. Because the highly qualified teacher requirements in the ESEA, which focus on content knowledge, already applied to special education teachers providing instruction in core academic subjects, the benefits of requiring special education teachers to also meet State certification requirements for special education teachers will largely depend on the extent to which these requirements reflect pedagogical knowledge and other teacher characteristics that are likely to have a positive effect on achievement of students with disabilities. As of now, there is minimal research showing the relationship between special education certification and academic achievement for students with disabilities.