The Certification Connection

Licensure ought to guarantee that every classroom comes equipped with a skilled, knowledgeable teacher. The new performance standards for teachers are making that possible.

I recently came across a flyer from the National Private Schools Association offering, among other things, certification for private school teachers. Intrigued, I went to the association’s website and discovered these requirements: provide information, all self-reported, on your academic background, teaching experience, and character; obtain a reference from an employer or colleague who will nominate you for certification (although no criteria for such nomination are provided); and pay $50 (your school also must pay an annual fee of $75 for you to be eligible).

While the existing system of licensure for public school teachers is more rigorous than simply rubber-stamping someone’s self-report on competence, most thoughtful people agree that the system is in need of a major overhaul. As a result, the processes and institutions that license teachers are changing, and many of the changes promise to ensure that teachers enter the classroom well equipped to work effectively with learners.

The problem with many states’ licensure requirements has been that they have not been thoughtfully developed as a coherent picture of what teachers need to know in order to be effective.


Why License Teachers?

Requiring teachers to be licensed seems intuitively appropriate, given their role in society. Society requires many professionals who work directly with the public, including lawyers, psychologists, nurses, and doctors, to be licensed in order to protect the public. These regulations ensure that the professionals working in these fields have the skills and knowledge required to perform their services effectively and ethically. Should the professionals who spend six to eight hours alone in a room with 20 vulnerable children be subject to any less scrutiny? Licensing teachers is a way to assure the public that teachers are competent, are qualified, and will, at the very least, do no harm.

The most basic purpose of licensure is to give the state control over who can teach, preventing those convicted of sexual misconduct, child abuse, or other relevant offenses from becoming or continuing to be school employees. Most states require a criminal background check as a part of licensure. Similarly, states screen with tests of basic skills in literacy and mathematics to ensure that the academic skills of would-be teachers are at least above some minimum threshold.

Like other bureaucratic processes, licensure also serves as a means of enforcing regulations. Most states have prescribed the coursework that candidates for licenses must take, down to the number of credits in specified courses with specified content. In Wisconsin, for example, elementary teachers cannot receive an initial license or renew a current license without proof of having completed coursework in how to teach reading using phonics. For an initial license, that proof comes as part of a 12-hour concentration in reading and language arts. In many states, teachers must earn additional professional development credits (usually six credits every five years) in order to renew their licenses, but teachers can earn these credits in areas that bear little relationship to their practice. Many teachers select courses based on their convenience and cost instead of their professional value. At a recent Wisconsin Education Association Council’s convention, banners over the booth of one out-of-state professional development provider read, “Three credits–five days!” States have written their policies in such a way that the number of credits earned has become more important than the skills learned, both in teacher education and continuing professional development.

The problem with many states’ licensure requirements has been that they have not been thoughtfully developed as a coherent picture of what teachers need to know in order to be effective. Rather, they have been piecemeal collections of basic knowledge and skills, coupled with trendy political issues that have been voted into statute. For example, state legislators added the study of environmental education, human relations, and conflict resolution to the licensure requirements in Wisconsin. And if you want to be licensed to teach high-school social studies in Wisconsin, state law requires that you study the economics of dairy cooperatives.

Licensure, for the most part, has served its basic purpose of keeping dangerous people out of the classroom, ensuring that teachers are literate and numerate, and enforcing training and coursework requirements. Furthermore, in the past 15 years, the route to licensure has become less rigid and bureaucratic. In some states, dual systems of licensure–for “regular” and “alternative” routes–have emerged, sparking lively discussion among those who continue to be held to the “regular” requirements. Nevertheless, the process of licensing teachers has come under scrutiny in an increasing number of states, as critics ask whether current licensure practice actually leads to higher student achievement. More and more, the challenge to business as usual in teacher licensure is resulting in a complete overhaul of the process.

The key disposition is respect for the individual learner, as shown in teachers’ efforts to connect with their students and to tailor instruction to their students’ needs.


A Meaningful License

Reformers have asked three questions in seeking to develop a licensing system that guarantees not only that teachers have met a series of requirements, but also that they are prepared to enter classrooms as effective teachers. They concern:

Standards: What should teachers know and be able to do in order to work effectively with learners?

Assessment: What counts as evidence that teachers have learned these skills and knowledge? In other words, how should their performance be measured?

Training: What are appropriate routes to developing these skills and knowledge?

The standards issue emerged in the mid-1980s, as states began to develop standards for what K-12 students ought to learn at each grade level. This had clear implications for the knowledge and skills that teachers who work with K-12 students need to possess. No less important was the emergence of alternative routes to teacher certification, such as the Troops to Teachers program for retired military personnel. Because licensure in most states had come to mean completing a series of mandated courses, the process wasn’t equipped to handle candidates who brought important skills and experiences to the classroom–skills and experiences that would allow them to move more quickly into the classroom if it weren’t for the state’s bureaucratic requirements. At first, states grappled with what appeared to be inequitable systems–a prescribed system for regular candidates, and a loose system for career changers. Legislators and reformers have addressed this inequity by focusing on standards rather than on requirements. Indeed, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has stated that while all teachers should be held to the same standards, alternative routes to meeting the standards can and must be developed.

The focus on licensing standards got a boost from the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, even though the National Board was concerned more with certifying accomplished teachers than with state licensure. The National Board’s standards of good teaching practice guided the work of the Interstate New Teacher Assessment
and Support Consortium (INTASC) as it began to develop a set of prototype standards for teacher licensure. At this writing, 37 states have used those standards in revising their licensure process.

The INTASC standards attempt to richly describe what the role of the teacher demands. They are outlined in three parts–knowledge, dispositions, and performances–making clear that teaching is a complex endeavor. While subject-area knowledge is privileged in the standards–INTASC has developed specific standards for science, mathematics, English language arts, and special education, and will soon release those for the elementary-school level, social studies, and foreign language–the standards also make clear that knowledge of child development, learning theory, and teaching approaches is essential. And some attention is being paid to candidates’ attitudes toward their subject matter and toward learners in the statements of “dispositions” that are incorporated into each of the standards.

To illustrate, let’s examine INTASC’s Standard 3, which reads: “The teacher understands how students differ in their approaches to learning and creates instructional opportunities that are adapted to diverse learners.” (See sidebar on pp. 12-13 for full text of the standard.) The knowledge required of teachers to meet this standard builds on the findings of cognitive psychology in stipulating that teachers must understand various learning styles and approaches to learning, as elucidated in Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. It also requires that they know how to handle specific differences that matter in the classroom, like students for whom English is not their first language or students with special needs. Teachers must understand and adapt their instruction to their students’ previous experiences, language, culture, and community values.

Dispositions identify the attitudes and values that guide and support the work of the teacher. In the case of Standard 3, the key disposition is respect for the individual learner, as shown in teachers’ efforts to connect with their students and to tailor instruction to their students’ individual needs. Finally, the performance standards describe the application of teachers’ knowledge and disposition in the tasks they undertake in the classroom.

The standards issue, however, is not without controversy. Standards can be just as politicized as the old state codes often were. Special interests may attempt to hijack standards, and they sometimes succeed in using them to promote a particular philosophy or approach, as we saw in the controversy surrounding drafts of the K-12 history standards. Standards cannot, by themselves, force people to rethink teacher education. Indeed, some teacher educators resist moving from the old practice of course-based teacher education and simply overlay a new surface of standards language. The past has perhaps conditioned us to look at courses as separate “bits” that together count as a program. In a standards-based approach, what candidates do in courses contributes to their meeting standards, but the standards provide a framework that cuts across courses. At times, state bureaucrats and teacher educators seem to be attempting to turn the standards into the same kind of check-off approach that counting courses represented. I have visited some programs where one standard is reduced to a single project required in course A and another to a single paper in course B. Given the rich language of INTASC’s Standard 3, a single project or paper could not possibly provide evidence of mastery.

Standards represent a major shift, from focusing on inputs to identifying key results. Standards invite all those involved in the endeavor–current teachers, school administrators, teacher educators, and state education officials–to a conversation about the meaning of good teaching and its impact on student learning. Wisconsin’s revision of the public instruction code for teacher education is using the meaning of the standards to allow both regular and alternative teacher-education programs to design their own approaches in contrast to the “locked-in” course requirements of the past. Institutions and alternative providers alike must make a case for how they’ve adhered to the standards.

The first responsibility of the licensure process is thus to make clear, through the development of standards, what the license stands for–indeed, what it guarantees about the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of the teacher who holds it.

The New Standards in Teacher Education

The standards of the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) outline the knowledge, dispositions, and performances necessary for effective teaching. Herewith, INTASC’s Standard #3 and the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to meet it.

INTASC Standard #3: The teacher understands how students differ in their approaches to learning and creates instructional opportunities that are adapted to diverse learners.


  • The teacher understands and can identify differences in approaches to learning and performance, including different learning styles, multiple intelligences, and performance modes, and can design instruction that helps use students’ strengths as the basis for growth.
  • The teacher understands and can provide adaptations for areas of exceptionality in learning–including learning disabilities, visual and perceptual difficulties, and special physical or mental challenges.
  • The teacher knows about the process of second-language acquisition and about strategies to support the learning of students whose first language is not English.
  • The teacher understands how students’ learning is influenced by individual experiences, talents, and prior learning, as well as language, culture, family, and community values.
  • The teacher has a well-grounded framework for understanding cultural and community diversity and knows how to learn about and incorporate students’ experiences, cultures, and community resources into instruction.


  • The teacher believes that all children can learn at high levels and persists in helping all children achieve success.
  • The teacher appreciates and values human diversity, shows respect for students’ varied talents and perspectives, and is committed to the pursuit of “individually configured excellence.”
  • The teacher respects students as individuals with differing personal and family backgrounds and various skills, talents, and interests.
  • The teacher is sensitive to community and cultural norms.
  • The teacher makes students feel valued for their potential as people, and helps them learn to value each other.


  • The teacher identifies and designs instruction appropriate to students’ stages of development, learning styles, strengths, and needs.
  • The teacher uses teaching approaches that are sensitive to the multiple experiences of learners and that address different learning and performance modes.
  • The teacher makes appropriate provisions (in terms of time and circumstances for work, tasks assigned, communication and response modes) for individual students who have particular learning differences or needs.
  • The teacher can identify when and how to access appropriate services or resources to meet exceptional learning needs.
  • The teacher can identify when and how to access appropriate resources to meet the needs of students with particular talents.
  • The teacher seeks to understand students’ families, cultures, and communities, and uses this information as a basis for connecting instruction to students’ experiences (e.g., drawing explicit connections between subject matter and community matters, making assignments that can be related to students’ experiences and cultures).
  • The teacher brings multiple perspectives to the discussion of subject matter, including attention to students’ personal, family, and community experiences and cultural norms.


The most critical issue for licensure is assessment. What will count as evidence that a candidate is ready to be licensed? What makes the guarantee of the license meaningful?

In the past, most states granted a license if the candidate completed the courses in the approved program of a college or university. Few would seriously argue that completing courses is automatically the same as developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required for effective teaching. Yet states and teacher educators alike have accepted–and some continue to accept–the proxy as appropriate.

On many campus visits I’ve made as part of my work as a member of the board of examiners for the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, I’ve asked faculty members about the relationships between the statements in the front of their syllabi and the process of determining grades, outlined at the end of the syllabus. In these syllabi, statements of goals regarding knowledge, skills, and disposition are usually written well. The key is whether students can pass the course without demonstrating that they have met the goals. Rarely are assessments clearly linked to the goals. Too often what passes for assessment is less focused on quality of performance than on issues of format and punctuality–both of which can be important, but are not central. Point systems may give a nod to quality, but they don’t often make explicit the criteria for quality. And faculty members often admit that students can earn enough points to pass without demonstrating the aspects of standards intended to be developed in the course.

Assessing whether a candidate has adequately demonstrated an aspect of a standard first requires clear criteria for what would count as such a demonstration. For example, in an Alverno College assessment focused on teaching writing in elementary school, candidates work with samples of actual student papers from a local district. After working with the district’s rubric, each candidate is given a sample paper to assess; the task involves first providing the evidence to support the candidate’s judgment about the developmental level of the 5th grader’s performance. Then, building on that judgment, the candidate develops an instructional plan based on her diagnosis of the learner’s strengths and needs.

Criteria for successful completion of this assessment include accurate use of the rubric (compared with the district teacher’s ranking of the paper) and effective reasoning based on specific aspects of the student’s writing. For the second part of the task–developing an instructional plan–criteria include the designation of two to three appropriate areas that the teacher would work on next with this learner and a clear rationale for the links between the student’s needs and the instructional plan.

Some programs simply ask teaching candidates to provide samples of different types of lesson plans, unconnected to school context, as artifacts that go into a portfolio to demonstrate meeting the INTASC standards. Such sample plans, developed in the absence of real learners’ needs, do not provide clear evidence that a candidate can “create instructional opportunities that are adapted to diverse learners.”

I’ve argued that a person could conceivably demonstrate some, most, or even all of the standards we require with little or no input from a teacher-education program. Shouldn’t we recognize, for example, the understanding of developmental psychology that literate parents have developed through the experiential learning involved in raising a child? And if those parents can transfer the understanding gained through experiential learning to designing developmentally appropriate instruction for learners, shouldn’t we be able to validate that knowledge and skill? If we took assessment seriously, we could develop learning experiences and assessment processes to fit the accumulated knowledge of candidates–and not have everyone move lockstep through the same series of courses.

A number of significant problems with assessment as related to licensure continue to dog the credibility of the process. Most important, while the standards describe teaching as a set of highly complex tasks, much of what currently passes for teacher testing follows a reductionist model–looking not so much at what’s important but at what’s easy to measure. Critical aspects of the standards are ignored because they are difficult to assess. For example, for Standard 3, we want to know how the teacher works with a group of 25 students, with a range of needs, and adapts instruction to meet their individual needs. Assessing that kind of instruction is an expensive, complex proposition. It requires documenting what the teacher knows about the learners and how she uses that knowledge in day-to-day work with the range of needs. Less expensive might be a multiple-choice test in which a teacher identifies the names of theorists and links them to their theories, but this does not begin to provide the same level of information. In the current world of teacher licensing, cost is an issue, and so many states let multiple-choice tests stand as proxies for the more complex assessment that would provide evidence of whether candidates meet the standards.

In order to make licensure a mark of quality, assessment needs to document knowledge and performance in practice and over time. In the new Wisconsin requirements, teacher-preparing institutions and alternative providers alike must give evidence of multiple, complex assessments tied to the standards for the initial license. At Alverno, we embed complex assessments in both liberal arts and teacher-education curricula. For example, our students interact with and observe four-year-olds to see how developmental theory is played out in the way children approach the world. They develop and teach lessons in classrooms over five semesters, initially tutoring one or two students and then teaching small groups and whole classes. They learn the expectations of a local district’s science curriculum and not only show the ability to assess 6th grade science projects using the district’s rubric, but also plan the next steps in designing instruction to meet the students’ needs. Faculty members provide feedback on these assessments, assisting teacher-education candidates as they continue to build their knowledge and skills in preparation for their role with learners. During student teaching, candidates put together a portfolio that illustrates their work with K-12 learners, assessing their work and giving them feedback and showing how their planning addresses the needs of their class. Thus the portfolio includes videotapes of the teacher working with students across a range of lessons, lesson plans, student work samples with teacher feedback, and the teachers’ continuing reflections on why they are doing what they do.

Similarly, in Oregon, teacher candidates put to-gether work samples demonstrating the links between teaching and K-12 student performance; they do this during student teaching and again in the first year of practice. A work sample usually includes a description of the class’s make-up, with demographic and other data, lesson plans, data from pre-tests and post-tests, and analysis of the learning gains made by students. In Connecticut, the BEST program requires new teachers to put together a portfolio of their performance during their second year that demonstrates their planning, instruction, assessment, and feedback practices. Continued licensure is contingent on meeting the criteria for adequate performance.

The Connecticut BEST portfolio assessment is more expensive than a multiple-choice test, but the evidence it provides is far superior. Teachers who serve as assessors receive rigorous training in the observation and assessment of teacher performance against well-articulated standards. This training of teachers as assessors for the process is also helping to build a different culture of learning, based on the statewide conversation about what constitutes good teaching.

The second responsibility of the licensure process is thus to ensure, through valid and meaningful assessment processes, that the teacher can do what the job requires.

During student teaching, candidates put together a portfolio that illustrates their work with K-12 learners, assessing their work and giving them feedback and showing how their planning addresses the needs of their class.



James W. Fraser argues that it’s time to decouple the relationship between teacher education and licensure. I agree that the status quo, in which the state blesses college- and university-based teacher-education programs but never seeks evidence of teachers’ performance in real classrooms, must be changed. Just taking courses does not ensure that candidates become quality teachers, just as knowing a subject doesn’t guarantee an ability to teach it. The shift toward standards and meaningful assessments opens up more possibilities. Now, whatever route candidates take to licensure, they must demonstrate the knowledge, dispositions, and performances outlined in the standards. Some candidates could prepare outside of a program and still be able to demonstrate the necessary skills–some, but not many.

Two arguments support maintaining a connection between state requirements for licensure and the programs that prepare teachers to stand for licensure, whether those programs are housed in higher-education institutions, in school districts, in other organizations, or in collaboratives involving any combination of groups. First, such a connection can protect the public by identifying programs that have provided evidence of offering legitimate, credible preparation that is linked to the standards to which new teachers will be held. In the past, colleges and universities were assumed to have a lock on legitimacy; I would instead like to see all providers produce evidence of their credibility. Not everyone who wants to put out a shingle to prepare teachers is necessarily qualified to do so.

Second, such a connection can protect the candidates who are seeking a viable route into the classroom by ensuring that programs provide candidates with the opportunity to learn, through both meaningful experiences and effective developmental assessment. Assuming for the moment that some candidates could stand for assessment and be licensed outside of a formal program, I believe that those who choose to go through a program–again, wherever it is provided–should have some assurance that what they get is worth the money they pay for it.

Opening up the range of providers might encourage more cutting-edge approaches. With advances in both assessment and technology, providers of teacher preparation ought to be able to design an almost infinite array of paths to demonstrating performance that meets the standards.

Thus, where Fraser argues for no relationship, I would urge a partnership in which the state encourages the responsible development of a range of program options. In fact, Alverno is involved in two such alternative programs, one with an urban school district and two other colleges, the other with three foundations, a group of independent schools, and another college.

We need to avoid the narrow thinking that says there’s one best way to prepare teachers. A few years ago, the Holmes Group argued the necessity of five- and six-year programs. However, the Federal Awards for Excellence in Teacher Preparation, which sought to find programs that have documented impact on K-12 student learning, honored three undergraduate programs (Alverno, Samford, and Eastern Carolina) and one graduate-level program (Fordham) in 2000. Many approaches may lead to the outcomes that we seek; states should not fall into the trap of specifying only one or a few approaches.

Thus it is the third responsibility of the licensure process to sanction approved routes and programs to obtaining the license, wherever they are established.

The Case for Licensure

Thoughtful critics have suggested that teacher licensure is an unnecessary burden when it is placed on candidates with appropriate content majors and related work experience. Underlying this argument is the notion that knowledge of student development and modes of learning either is best learned on the job or is not relevant.

While it’s hard to make the case for licensure when it requires only taking a collection of courses, it’s even harder to argue against a standards-based licensure system that ensures that every child will have a well-trained, high-quality teacher. Such a system depends on complex processes of assessment that incorporate basic skills, content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and performance in a school setting with real students.

Perhaps another Wisconsin analogy will help focus the case for meaningful licensure. In Wisconsin, a licensed veterinarian has to pass three types of exams: a written standardized test, an oral interview, and a demonstration of surgery on a small animal. Should the requirements be any less stringent for those to whom we entrust our children?

-Mary E. Diez is a professor of education and graduate dean at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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