Strengthen State Oversight of Teacher Preparation

Forum: The Quest for Better Educators

As the president of the sole specialized accreditor for educator preparation, I certainly agree with Dr. Chard’s assertion that “[i]mproving educational attainment for all students in today’s schools can only happen if we improve the quality of teaching.” As Dr. Chard mentions in his essay, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) is already working toward some of the solutions proposed through development of the next generation of accreditation standards for educator preparation as well as convening a data task force to provide guidance and help determine some of the very research questions for studying and strengthening educator preparation, as Dr. Chard suggests.

While one of the hallmarks of CAEP as a new kind of accreditor is its focus on research and evidence that will further advance the field of educator preparation, this does not negate the need for a reformed teacher-licensure system.

Like many other features of our Pre-K–12 school system, the current design of teacher licensing, or certification as it’s often called, has outlived its usefulness. It was suited to a bygone era when the nation’s principal concern was to produce teachers that “do no harm” to their students. This concept of primum non nocere, originally applied to medical ethics, set a low bar for entrants to teaching. It seems strangely out of place today, when expectations for teachers emphasize their competence to help all learners become successful in a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy. Yet eliminating teacher licensure altogether likely would be to worsen the current dysfunctions. I will offer strategies for reforming teacher licensure that I believe have greater potential for success.

The Impact of Teacher Licensing

Some economists argue that the social and economic costs of licensure outweigh its benefits by reducing economic growth and/or the distribution of economic benefits. They argue that by invoking licensure, government improperly values the special interests of the practitioner over other interests. These criticisms date back to Adam Smith, but were given currency by Milton Friedman, who argued that government and professional associations were using licensure to reassert the monopoly of cartels by creating market entry restrictions.

Other economists, however, reject this critique of licensure in favor of a theory of “market failure.” According to this perspective, governmental intervention in the market, via such activities as professional licensing, can be justified when the market fails to operate efficiently. Market failure occurs when it is difficult for the consumer to judge the qualifications of a provider or the quality of a provider’s work.

The empirical evidence is mixed. With the pathways into teaching growing in number, including training programs offered outside of higher education, it is hard to argue that current licensure policies substantially restrict entry, for example. And even critics acknowledge that licensing may lead to benefits such as higher-quality outcomes for those who obtain services from licensed professionals.

For many critics of teacher licensure, the gold standard is whether it promotes or impedes student learning. Yet research on the impact of licensure on student outcomes is inconclusive, with some studies finding little, if any, difference among traditionally certified and uncertified teachers and others finding substantially higher student test scores among traditionally certified teachers.

The comparisons in a number of such studies are complicated by the fact that teachers self-select into teaching with different skills sets and training, and they are not, of course, randomly assigned to schools, making inferences about their productivity imperfect at best. Moreover, labels can be confusing. Alternative approaches to licensure often are equated with the term “uncertified,” yet individuals taking an alternative route are typically intending to become fully licensed while they teach. Alternative paths to certification may produce different outcomes in the field than traditional paths. An analysis by Paul Peterson and Daniel Nadler found that states that encourage alternative licensure have greater diversity in their teacher pools, for example (see “What Happens When States Have Genuine Alternative Certification?” check the facts, Winter 2009). Given these complications, the most that can be said is that the research has not shown licensure by itself to have a negative or positive effect on student learning.

Teacher Licensure in the States

Current licensure requirements vary significantly among states, as reported by the testing company Educational Testing Service (ETS):

Praxis: Thirty-six states accept the Praxis exam to establish basic skills proficiency (Praxis I), content knowledge (Praxis II), or both. Thirty-four of these require either the Praxis I or II specifically for at least one level of licensure, generally for the initial level. However, the score required to pass varies considerably: on a 100-point scale, the most demanding states tend to set a cut score 20 to 30 points above those of the least-demanding states, whose cut scores are below what is recommended by ETS.

Bachelor’s degrees: All states require some form of bachelor’s degree, yet requirements for content-specific degrees are variously defined and inconsistently applied. The standard requirement is a major in the subject, although most states allow substitution of a major with course credits. Due to the inconsistent approaches within higher education, the Praxis examination has, by default, become the threshold for entering the profession.

Master’s degrees: Twenty-five states require a master’s degree in order to obtain one or more kinds of certification. However, states are moving away from this type of requirement toward outcome-based induction programs.

Alternative routes to licensure outside of higher education: According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Education report, 8 percent of teacher preparation programs were designated as “alternative, not based in institutions of higher education,” provided instead by for-profit or nonprofit organizations. Combined, the states of Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Texas produce 74 percent of teacher candidates trained outside of institutions of higher education. There is wide variation in the quality of teachers produced both within higher education and via alternative pathways, a signal that the systems of quality control need to be overhauled through regulation and market mechanisms.

Licensing Can Be Improved

Teacher licensure has little impact on teaching quality because it sets too low a bar for entry into teaching. Also, licensure policies have often been relaxed to assure that an adult is in each classroom, but not necessarily a qualified adult. In short, educator licensure suffers from weak controls:

• Licensure regulations in some states focus only on courses and degrees for some pathways into teaching. As soon as they enter the classroom, graduates of preparation programs should show evidence of their ability to teach diverse learners according to rigorous college- and career-ready standards.

• Many licensure tests lack rigor. Worse still, most states use low cut scores that further weaken their rigor. Licensure tests must be redesigned to focus on the more rigorous content required for Pre-K–12 students, general pedagogy, and pedagogy within a discipline (pedagogical content knowledge).

• Current licensure policies make little use of performance-based assessments that capture a candidate’s actual preparedness to teach on entering a classroom. Some states are moving away from licensure based on paper-and-pencil tests in favor of assessments that demonstrate competence to teach and to raise Pre-K–12 student learning.

Addressing basic licensure issues could have a considerable impact on teacher quality. More focus on performance assessments such as those noted above would, among other things, lessen unduly burdensome course requirements for nontraditional applicants entering college and university preparation programs. A shift to a focus on measuring outcomes will open the licensure process to high-quality alternative pathways into teaching and encourage innovation among higher education providers who wish to compete on cost and quality rather than on traditional curriculum and seat-time requirements.

Relicensure requirements for practicing teachers should be aligned with improved initial licensure requirements. They should specify a more advanced level of practice with accompanying evidence, including instructional practices, student learning, and other measures. Similarly, advanced master’s programs should be redesigned to serve this purpose as well.

More rigorous licensure requirements should focus on meeting the needs of today’s diverse learners, whatever the school setting. Also, licensure requirements should complement new, more rigorous teacher-evaluation systems that capture the context within which teachers work, using teacher observation protocols, student learning measures, and student surveys that measure student engagement and related evidence of a teacher’s effectiveness. Neither a licensure system nor evaluation alone can accomplish what these quality-control mechanisms can do if they are complementary and rigorous.

Leverage State Authority

If the teacher licensing bar is to be raised, more rigorous state program-approval authority for teacher preparation programs is also needed. The recent report of the Council of Chief State School Officers found that state program-approval policies for preparation programs, both those for “traditional higher education programs and for new pathways, suffer from weak and inconsistent regulation.” Weak controls at the front end lead to highly inconsistent quality among entrants to teacher preparation programs and ultimately new hires. This pattern contributes to high retraining costs for school districts and to destabilizing and costly turnover rates. States could use their authority over teacher preparation programs to strengthen the qualifications of beginning teachers and lower costs to districts by focusing on the recruitment and admission of a qualified pool, rigorous clinical preparation, and collecting evidence of program impact (hiring rates, graduate and employer satisfaction, Pre-K–12 student learning, and related measures). States should work closely with CAEP, as the new accrediting body for educator preparation, in aligning program approval and licensure policies with accreditation standards.

Tightening regulation to assure candidate and program quality is likely to lead to a more qualified pool of graduates competing to teach, better hiring decisions, less attrition, and a more favorable learning environment for Pre-K–12 students. Markets have their place as mechanisms for introducing quality. However, the market will work much better if government regulates the providers more effectively and if preparation programs produce graduates whose readiness to teach can be clearly identified by the school districts that hire them.

As Dr. Chard indicated, the efforts of individual groups like CAEP are not enough: we must approach education reform holistically and at a systemic level. In coming years, a record number of new teachers will be hired to replace those retiring. As a nation, we cannot afford to fail. We will have a once-in-a-generation chance to get it right.

This article is part of a forum on developing better educators. For another take, please see Training Must Focus on Content and Pedagogy by David Chard.

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Chard, D., and Cibulka, J.G. (2013). The Quest for Better Educators. Education Next, 13(4), 50-57.

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