Special Education:

Additional Assistance and Better Coordination Needed among Education Offices to Help States Meet the NCLBA Teacher Requirements

GAO-04-659: Published: Jul 15, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 2004.

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Cornelia M. Ashby
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During the 2001-2002 school year, more than 400,000 special education teachers provided instructional services to approximately 6 million students with disabilities in U.S. schools. Two federal laws contain teacher qualification requirements that apply to special education teachers: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Given the committee's interest in issues related to highly qualified special education teachers, we are providing information about (1) the state certification requirements, including the use of alternative certification programs, for special education teachers, and how they relate to NCLBA requirements; (2) the factors that facilitate or impede state efforts to ensure that special education teachers meet NCLBA requirements; and (3) how different offices in the Department of Education (Education) assist states in addressing NCLBA teacher requirements.

In the 2002-2003 school year, all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico required that special education teachers have a bachelor's degree and be certified to teach--two of NCLBA's teacher qualification requirements--and half required special education teachers to demonstrate subject matter competency in core academic subjects, which is the third requirement. Specifically, 24 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico required their teachers to demonstrate some level of subject matter competency by having a degree or passing state tests in the core academic subjects that they wished to teach. Teachers of core academic subjects in the remaining states that did not have such requirements might not be positioned to meet the NCLBA requirements. To meet NCLBA teacher requirements, teachers would need to demonstrate competency in core academic subjects by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. State education officials reported that the availability of funds to support professional development facilitated implementation of the NCLBA teacher requirements, while other factors, such as uncertainty about how to apply the subject matter competency requirement to special education teachers, impeded implementation. State education officials and national education organizations' representatives we interviewed cited the need for more assistance from Education in explaining NCLBA's teacher requirements and identifying implementation strategies. Education has provided a range of assistance, such as site visits, Web-based guidance, and financial assistance, to help states implement the highly qualified teacher requirements. However, department coordination related to the implementation of NCLBA's teacher requirements for special education teachers has been limited.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, the U.S. Department of Education (Education) reported that it had monitored all but two states--Massachusetts and Wisconsin--and provided additional assistance on strategies to assist states and school districts in understanding how special education teachers can meet the highly qualified teacher requirements. The department also reported that it planned to monitor the remaining two states later in 2006. In addition, Education reported that it has offered to include experts in areas for which the states are asking for additional technical assistance in understanding or implementing the highly qualified teacher requirements, as they apply to special education teachers, in future highly qualified teacher monitoring visits to each state. According to Education, departmental support to states in this area will be provided by Office of Elementary and Secondary Education staff working in consultation with Office of Special Education Programs and Office of General Counsel staff. In addition, Education reported it issued revised non-regulatory guidance on the highly qualified teacher requirements in August 2005.

    Recommendation: To better address states' concerns about their special education teachers being positioned to meet NCLBA teacher requirements, the Secretary of Education should provide additional assistance to states on strategies to meet the requirements and clarification of subject matter competency requirements for special education teachers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, Education reported that its Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) and Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) have worked closely together to ensure that policy is developed and communicated consistently, under the leadership of the NCLB Coordinating Board. For example, the Department reported that OESE and OSEP closely collaborated in preparing the response to our report, which was jointly issued by the Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. According to Education, that document described in detail the coordination efforts between OESE and OSEP. Education also reported that OESE and OSEP will continue to work together on future NCLB and IDEA policy decisions that may affect teachers, to ensure that state and local officials understand how the highly qualified teacher requirements apply to special educators and to disseminate promising practices that can assist state and local agencies to implement the highly qualified requirements for all teachers of core academic subjects. As of June 2008, ED formalized these efforts, thereby addressing our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To continue to improve policy development and technical assistance that Education's offices provide to states on NCLBA requirements, the Department of Education should formalize in writing coordination efforts between the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). For example, such efforts could include defining how OSEP's expertise and staff would be involved in developing NCLBA policies and guidance related to special education teachers and in providing technical assistance to states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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