Barriers to a flexible teaching force

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Mar 13, 2015

Last week, the Clayton Christensen Institute released a study detailing how online learning can help address the nation’s teacher labor shortages. Although the United States generally has an oversupply of teachers, it faces acute shortages within certain strands of the teacher labor force—some of these include shortages of secondary teachers; shortages of science, math, world languages, and special education teachers; and shortages of teachers in certain geographic regions. As the study points out, powerful social and economic forces make it difficult to fill these shortages merely by trying to produce more of the types of teachers needed. Online learning, however, provides a solution to these shortages by making the existing teaching force more flexible and productive.

In our study, we provide a number of policy recommendations that can help facilitate online learning’s impact on this issue. But as our friends over at the Evergreen Education Group pointed out on Tuesday, the study fails to mention one important policy change that is critical for addressing the issue. In order for the teaching force to be flexible, states need better policies to allow teachers to teach across state lines.

Most states have some form of licensure reciprocity policies in place that allow teachers who are licensed in one state to gain an additional licensure in a new state where they would like to teach. The problem is that gaining licensure in a new state can be a lengthy and difficult process. States created these policies mainly for traditional teachers who physically relocate to a new state and plan to teach at a brick-and-mortar school within that state for the indefinite future. Thus, although the process of gaining an additional license is difficult, it is bearable if you are only making a one-time transfer to a new state.

In contrast, online learning makes it possible for the best online teachers to live in any state of their choosing and simultaneously serve students across the entire country. But given the policy-enforced requirements for gaining additional state licensures, online teachers are often limited to teaching only in the state where they physically reside—or at most in a small handful of states for which they have completed the licensure transfer process.

When you get into the weeds of the issue, the problem is that each state has its own unique set of teacher licenses and licensing requirements. For example, some states require teachers to hold master’s degrees, whereas others require them to only hold bachelor’s degrees. Licenses from different states often cover different spans of grades or subjects for which teachers may teach. States also use different combinations of coursework requirements and exams for licensing their teachers. Each state has its own reasoning for establishing its particular licensure requirements, and no state wants to diminish the importance of its chosen requirements by letting teachers from other states circumvent those requirements. (For more information on these policy differences and some ideas on how to address them, see the recent Keeping Pace report, “Teaching Online Across State Lines.”)

In summary, this single policy change is likely the most powerful policy lever for addressing regional teacher shortages and making it possible for all students to be served by the best teachers available. Thanks to our friends at Evergreen for raising awareness of this issue.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.